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Tiny Tech Needed for Rapid Progress Towards Emissions Targets

solar panels on house roof
Small-scale technologies such as home solar panels can accelerate global decarbonization. | Marufish/Flickr

Tiny tech innovations ranging from domestic solar panels to electric cars, bikes and scooters can rapidly build the low-carbon energy economy and accelerate the progress made toward global decarbonization.

In a Policy Forum published in the April 3 issue of Science, researchers demonstrate the potential advantages of "granular" energy technologies that are small-scale, low-cost and widely deployable in meeting crucial international climate change goals.

Decarbonizing our current carbon-laden global energy economy presents significant technological and economic challenges, the researchers noted, particularly at the rapid pace required to avoid worst-case climate projections.

Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the University of East Anglia's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and his team collected data on a wide variety of technologies at different scales to determine the potential role granular energy technologies could have in accelerating the low-carbon transformation of the global energy system.

"Our study suggests that rapid proliferation of smaller-scale technologies distributed throughout our energy system, cities and homes can help drive faster and fairer progress towards climate targets," said Wilson.

The term granularity is used here to describe technologies in terms of their physical or economic scale. According to the researchers, granular technologies are smaller in size, lower in cost and more modular, allowing them to be mass produced and widely distributed. On the other hand, "lumpy" technologies are larger and less modular with greater overall costs.

Lumpy technologies like nuclear power or carbon capture and storage seem to offer "silver bullet" solutions for delivering large chunks of the carbon emission reductions needed to meet the internationally agreed climate targets, according to Wilson. However, many of these technologies, including those that have been deemed critical by the International Energy Agency for pursuing carbon neutrality, require multi-million-dollar investments or require significant improvements in infrastructure and performance before they can be effectively deployed within the next several decades.

The debate over the advantages of granular versus lumpy technologies in the energy system has been ongoing for decades. While recent advances in energy generation and energy use have renewed the technical and economic interest in decentralized, smaller-scale solutions to decarbonization, the "bigger-is-better" approach generally dominates the trajectory of technological and economic development.

"Despite mounting evidence of the advantages of smaller-scale alternatives, larger-scale technologies remain politically and analytically seductive," said Wilson.

The research team's study focused on a variety of energy technologies across a broad range of domains, including not only electricity generation, but also energy end-use products in homes, transport and industry.

The findings showed that under certain conditions, more smaller-scale options outperform larger-scale technologies in a number of important ways. They deploy faster, are less risky, subject to faster innovation and improvement, reduce demand, are more equitably distributed, offer higher economic returns and create more employment opportunities.

They are also better suited to avoid the pitfalls of "lock-in." Lock-in is a phenomenon that describes a general resistance to change in large technological systems. For example, large-scale infrastructure — be it a fossil-fueled power plant or concentrating solar array — are designed to last decades or more, essentially locking these systems into their underlying technologies for the life of the project, despite the development of better alternatives. Furthermore, those with vested interests have an incentive to slow rates of change.

"We expected to find some advantages of smaller scale technologies, but we were surprised by how consistent and wide-ranging these advantages were, and how relevant they all were for accelerating progress on decarbonization," said Wilson.

The researchers noted that granularity is not a universal solution to the challenges facing the global energy system. In some cases, there are no like-for-like alternatives to larger scale technologies. Similarly, there are situations in which large numbers of smaller-scale technologies may instead create additional risks or problems. "Think of the challenges for coordinating the output of a million solar panels versus a single nuclear power plant, or the movement of 250 e-bikes through city streets versus a single tram on a light transit system," said Wilson.

"Our [work] tells a clear story about how best to tackle climate change — prioritize smaller-scale solutions that deploy faster, that reduce inertia to change in the energy system, and that enjoy greater social legitimacy," said Wilson. "This is an important part of our findings — we're interested not just in rapid decarbonization, but also in the strong social foundations on which rapid decarbonization has to be built."

Wilson argued that granularity should be an essential technological characteristic for policymakers, investors and firms to consider in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and facilitate a carbon-neutral energy economy by mid-century.

"This means directing funding, policy support, incentives, and opportunities for experimentation and learning away from the few big and towards the many small," Wilson said.