Disrupting the energy system

How clusters of innovations can accelerate the low-carbon energy transition

Innovative technologies are making it possible for societies around the world to transition to energy systems that produce fewer carbon emissions. But these innovations aren’t being adopted consistently across Canada. Christina Hoicka, associate professor in sustainable energy economics at York University, has developed a new way to measure the uptake of the innovations that will help accelerate the shift to low-carbon energy systems.

You can’t change what you don’t measure

Many countries are aiming to reduce their carbon emissions by 2030 and eliminate them entirely by 2050. To reach those goals, they’ll need to accelerate their transition to low-carbon energy by adopting more electric vehicles, solar panels, battery storage systems and other innovations based on renewable energy sources. But without knowing what technologies households and businesses are actually adopting and why—as well as the impact those technologies have on communities—it’s impossible to make effective policies to support the transition.

“Policy documents have these aspirational visions of how communities will engage in the low-carbon energy transition,” says Hoicka. “But there’s a disconnect between what’s in the policies and what we actually measure.”

Innovations don’t operate in a vacuum

Most studies on what’s driving or inhibiting the adoption of low-carbon technologies focus on a single innovation. Not surprisingly, these studies usually find low adoption rates.

“They’re looking at just one disruptive technology trying to go against the entire fossil-fuel-dependent system, but that’s not how the technologies actually interact,” explains Hoicka.

Her study, funded in part by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant, used a variety of methods to examine the potential impacts of multiple innovations, along with the factors that encouraged or dissuaded adoption. That included surveys of low-carbon innovation providers and other stakeholders across industry, research and policy-making.

Specifically, she and a team of graduate students at the Social Exergy lab, along with international researchers, looked at the effects various factors had on three dimensions of disruption: decarbonization (reducing carbon emissions), democratization (giving communities more control over their energy systems) and decentralization (moving toward smaller power generation facilities located closer to end users).

The initial findings suggest that, while economic policies can help increase uptake of a new innovation, most policy supports reinforce the carbon-intensive, centralized system. However, strong public discourse around specific innovations—including those with more disruptive potential—can increase the likelihood that policies will be drafted to support them.

Making more effective decisions

Hoicka and her research team codified all of the data into a “scorecard” that rates how much an innovation contributes to disrupting or reinforcing existing energy systems. She hopes that, with this information brought together in an easy-to-use way, governments, policy-makers and funders will be able to gain a better understanding of what kinds of technologies should be promoted and what they need to do to support them.

“If we’re serious about decarbonizing, we need to identify the disruptive innovations and provide more economic, policy and legitimacy support for them—and actively inhibit the ones that reinforce the status quo,” she says.

A project with global impact

While Hoicka’s study used the Ontario energy system as a test case, the scorecard can be adapted to any system, at any scale, anywhere in the world. In response to interest from foundations and funding agencies that support clean technology innovation, she’s published a paper describing the methodology so others can apply the scorecard to their own contexts. Several other preliminary papers have also been published.

“This work offers a new way of thinking about the low-carbon transition as a system, instead of innovation by innovation,” says Hoicka. “It lets us look at who’s being served by these innovations, who’s excluded and the kinds of benefits we’re seeing—giving us more granular insight into how the system can change and how those changes could affect societies and communities.”

Want to learn more?

For more on the project, see socialexergy.ca; read Hoicka’s papers for MethodsX, the Smart Prosperity Institute and the Energy Modelling Initiative; listen to an interview with Hoicka on the Energi Talks podcast; and check out her guest blog for the Smart Prosperity Institute.

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