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Small-scale energy technology should be prioritised over large-scale solutions to tackle the big problem of carbon emissions. 

To rapidly achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gasses, the world needs to embrace smaller, more affordable low-carbon technologies.

Challenge

International climate targets can only be achieved if greenhouse gas emissions are halved in the next decade and reach net-zero around mid-century. This demands a rapid and unprecedented transformation in the way energy is supplied, distributed and used.

Collaboration

International researchers joined forces from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and the University Institute of Lisbon. 

Together they collected data about a wide variety of energy technologies at different scales. They tested how well each technology performed against nine characteristics of accelerated low-carbon transformation, such as cost, innovation and accessibility.

The team looked at which was the better option:

  • Large-scale – big, complex and costly technologies, such as nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, high-speed transit systems and whole-building retrofits
  • Smaller size - lower cost, more small-scale solutions that can be scaled by being replicated rather than becoming bigger, such as solar panels, electricity storage batteries, heat pumps, smart thermostats, electric bikes, shared taxis and taxi-buses.

Insight

The team discovered, that subject to certain conditions, more granular alternatives will out-perform larger scale technologies.

Smaller scale, more affordable, low-carbon technologies that can be mass deployed are more likely to enable a faster transition to net-zero emissions. Innovations such as solar panels and electric bikes also have lower investment risks, more scope for reducing energy demand and greater potential for cost reduction and performance improvement, which are key for accelerating progress towards decarbonisation.

Not only can smaller scale technologies be quickly deployed, but they have shorter lifespans and are less complex, so innovations and improvements can be brought to market more rapidly. They are also more widely accessible and can help to boost employment, giving governments a sound basis for strengthening climate policies. And what better time to invest in green tech as countries around the world face the challenge of climate change and need to kickstart their economies and create jobs.

Smaller scale technologies are not a universal solution. They can’t replace long-haul aircraft or large-scale industrial plants for iron, steel and cement. But heat pumps, solar panels and insulation can be integrated with larger scale infrastructure and technology to help reduce emissions.  

Professor Charlie Wilson

This project was led by Charlie who is based at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and a Professor of Energy & Climate Change at our School of Environmental Sciences.

He helped to discover that a rapid proliferation of low-carbon innovations distributed throughout our energy system, cities and homes can help to drive faster and fairer progress towards climate targets.

“We find that big new infrastructure costing billions is not the best way to accelerate decarbonisation. Governments, firms, investors, and citizens should instead prioritise smaller-scale solutions which deploy faster. This means directing funding, policies, incentives, and opportunities for experimentation away from the few big and towards the many small.”

Charlie Wilson

The research was supported by the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE), Kyoto, Japan. Charlie was also supported by ERC Starting grant 678799.

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