World solar technology summit: A blueprint for the energy intensive sector?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

SolarStratos solar powered aircraft prototype flies with Swiss adventurer Raphael Domjan and Spanish test pilot Miguel A. Iturmendi aboard, during a test flight in Payerne, Switzerland, 25 August 2020. [EPA-EFE/LAURENT GILLIERON]

The world solar technology summit, which took place in India earlier this month, could in many ways be a model for the decarbonisation of the energy-intensive sector, which includes industries such as steel, cement, chemicals, non-ferrous metals and glass, writes Gauri Khandekar.

Gauri Khandekar is a researcher at the Institute for European for Studies at the Vrije Universitaet Brussel.

On 8 September 2020, the first world solar technology summit took place, organised by the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and facilitated by India. The virtual summit brought together more than 26,000 participants from 149 countries to focus on state-of-the-art and next-generation solar energy technologies, related new business models and promote investments in the solar sector.

The summit is noteworthy for four key reasons:

  • For one, it is the first platform to directly target sectoral decarbonisation (here: energy sector) on a global scale through technology development and propagation. Such international sector-focused decarbonisation platforms could potentially have a significant impact on sectoral decarbonisation but remain sorely amiss.
  • Second, the summit brought together the latest know-how on low-cost and innovative/disruptive solar technologies. It hosted a CEO conclave of the world’s largest corporations active in the development and scaling up of solar technologies and storage solutions, and convened leading academics, scientists, researchers and innovators.
  • Third, the summit also launched a journal on Solar Energy (I JOSE) which would facilitate authors from across the world to publish their articles on solar energy, further enabling knowledge transfer and sharing of best practices.
  • More importantly, later this year the ISA will launch a World Solar Bank with authorised capital of around USD 15 billion to fund solar projects and bring down technology costs.

The world solar technology summit could in many ways be a model for the decarbonisation of other sectors, and in particular the energy intensive sector which includes industries such as steel, cement, chemicals, non-ferrous metals, glass, and accounts for around 21% of global emissions.

The energy intensive sector is often labelled as a hard-to-abate sector given its high CO2-and-energy intensive processes and low current availability of technological decarbonization solutions. Moreover, in mainly developed countries, most of the low-hanging fruits for decarbonisation such as energy efficiency measures have already been picked. Some production plants in the European Union (EU) are even close to the thermodynamic limits of current processes.

The sector’s innovation needs are substantial and encompass a broad spectrum ranging from the creation and acceleration of new low-carbon production processes (many of which necessitate fundamentally different modes of production, in addition to novel feedstocks and/or core industrial processes), to innovation that applies not only to the value chains of energy-intensive industries but also to the energy systems that power them. For industry, the 30 years left till 2050 for achieving climate neutrality translates into one large investment cycle.

There are currently a number of breakthrough technologies which are being developed – most of which in Europe – for virtually all industries of the energy intensive sector. The vast majority of these technologies find themselves at low-to-mid technology readiness levels (TRLs), with only a handful at the demonstration stage. However, ensuring these technologies reach demonstration and then commercialisation will require vast amounts of finance.

A sizeable mission-oriented R&D programme will be required to accelerate the development and deployment of these breakthrough low-CO2 technologies. Moreover, even if the low-CO2 technologies reach maturity, their market uptake will depend on the operational costs, wherein cost optimisation can be achieved by having multiple technologies reach full scale size to allow for experimentations with design improvements on an industrial scale.

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A global platform for energy intensive sector breakthrough low-carbon technologies could firstly help draw in finance towards the sector’s considerable R&D needs, while opening up a vast global market for the breakthrough technologies which would in turn bring down technology costs significantly. It could eventually also create large markets for low-carbon products which would then be able to compete with incumbent products.

The global promulgation of such technologies could arguably be the fastest way to create a level playing field – a major concern of European energy intensive industries. The EU needs allies. The more countries producing low-carbon products, the less the risk of carbon leakage for EU industries. Naturally, safeguards would be needed, for example an agreed phasing out of brownfield installations alongside the adoption of low-carbon technologies. In any case, other options currently being explored in the EU at creating a level playing field would come with their own set of challenges. Border carbon adjustment taxes, for instance, could trigger international trade wars.

Low-CO2 technological solutions will however not be the sole panacea for the decarbonisation of the energy intensive sector. Achieving enhanced levels of circularity and materials efficiency will also be vital. This implies the better retention of material value by avoiding downgrading and contamination, improvement of efficiency of new material use in manufacturing and construction, and increasing the collection and recycling rates of basic materials.

The platform could therefore enable greater knowledge transfer and sharing of best practices in circularity and materials efficiency leading to shorter global value chains. Additionally, like the ISA’s World Solar Bank, international finance institutions could be invited to play a greater role in financing related greenfield projects.

The world solar technology summit set an important example in accelerating the global decarbonisation of a single emission sector by facilitating collaboration on and directing finance to the latest solar energy technologies and related projects.

Given that most of the breakthrough low-carbon technologies in the energy intensive sector are currently being developed in Europe, the EU could take the lead at facilitating a similar platform in the energy intensive field.

Not only could such a platform accelerate the development and deployment of low-carbon technologies, create larger markets for low-carbon energy intensive products, and facilitate the creation of a global level playing, it would hasten the decarbonisation of a growing sector which would otherwise continue to account for a fifth of global emissions.

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The EU needs an industrial strategy that helps basic material industries achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and innovation needs to be a large part of it, write Tomas Wyns and Gauri Khandekar.

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