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The world needs to triple its investments in clean energy innovation

By Chris Mooney

The world needs to triple its investments in clean energy research, suggests a new study by the Paris-based International Energy Agency, if we’re to have a chance of keeping the world below 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels — a level beyond which truly dangerous climate change might set in.

That’s because in addition to any international agreement to cut carbon emissions that may be reached at the end of this year, the world will also need new technologies to fill the gap left behind as we use less of fossil fuels like coal.

The new document, IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2015, notes that land-based wind and solar photovoltaic in particular have grown markedly and are now “ready to be mainstreamed in many energy systems.” But there’s still a gap: We need innovation in discovering “enabling technologies” that can better integrate these inherently variable sources of energy (wind doesn’t always blow, sun doesn’t always shine) into our electrical systems.

According to the agency, while greater deployment of wind and solar could contribute to a dramatic 22 percent decline in total emissions from world electricity by the year 2050, “for very high deployment levels of wind and PV, innovation is needed in demand-side integration, energy storage and smart grid infrastructure.”

Energy storage technology in particular has been a hot topic of late, thanks to the announcement by Tesla Motors of the creation of Tesla Energy, which will sell battery products for homes, businesses, and for power companies.

The new IEA report says that the cost of lithium-ion batteries for energy storage at the scale of the electric grid had declined to $ 600 per kilowatt hour as of 2013 — but if Tesla CEO Elon Musk is to be believed, it is actually way lower than that already:

But in general, IEA says, the world is not innovating fast enough. We need to be “decoupling” economic and population growth from energy use more than two times as rapidly as we currently are, it says.

Alas, we don’t seem to be behaving like a global society that is very worried about greening its energy systems.

“Public expenditures on energy RD&D have been growing in absolute terms since the late 1990s,” notes the IEA report, “their share of total R&D, however, has fallen dramatically from a peak of 11% in 1981 and has remained flat between 3% and 4% since 2000.”