Funding for low-carbon tech: Why the clean energy ministerial meeting changes everything and nothing

Energy ministers assemble for CEM7. Credit: IISD/ENB/Franz Dejon

Grantham Institute Head of Policy and Translation, Alyssa Gilbert, thinks about the cosy blanket of funding, investment and support that will nurture innovation and boost efforts to come up with new ways to generate clean energy and avoid dangerous climate change.

By now we all know that avoiding dangerous levels of climate change means producing less greenhouse gases, and switching to using more efficient products and processes, in all aspects of our lives. Since market forces, entrenched behaviour and existing infrastructures don’t change unaided, they need to be moved in the right direction by a combination of political persuasion, policies and cash injection.

The 7th Clean Energy Ministerial meeting (CEM7) in sunny San Francisco has been lodged in my calendar for some time. When it came to watching the webinar of the event from my unseasonably cold office in London, I found myself unsure how this new promise of support for low-carbon energy technologies sits with existing schemes and if their combination leaves anybody out in the cold.

Innovation wrapped up

So, I have dug a little deeper into the three most high-profile groups: Mission Innovation, which was announced by governments at the Paris Climate Change meetings last December, the Breakthrough Energy coalition, a group of private sector financiers committed to funding clean energy with a long-term perspective, and the Clean Energy Ministerial, energy and resource ministers interested in promoting clean energy who have been meeting annually since 2010.

The Ministerial group includes representatives from 23 countries and the European Union. Members produce 75% of global carbon dioxide emissions, but also represent 90% of investment into clean energy. Together, these countries collaborate on practice, policy and technical support to push forward cleaner and more efficient use of energy, by influencing demand and supply, and the development of new grids that can integrate power supply from renewables.

Last week, the Ministerial meeting discussed new public-private sector initiatives to address commercial and industrial energy efficiency, looked at new cooling technologies and how policies help members procure electricity from renewable energy plants. They recently established some permanent administration with a steering committee and secretariat to aid their work.

All under one roof

But what of Mission Innovation? Launched last year, this is a specific pledge by 20 countries to double their spending on research and development (R&D) in the coming five years, specifically covering low-carbon energy. This group of ministers represent over 80% of all government contributions to clean energy R&D. They took advantage of some overlap in membership with the CEM to meet up for the first time last week and agree what their mission really constitutes.

Despite the coincidence of their meetings, overlap in membership does not mean overlap in activity. Mission Innovation will focus on investing in technology start-ups at their earliest steps of development – taking ideas from the very first stages through to initial modifications and improvements and taking them towards early pilots. This sits well with the Ministerial’s focus on supporting deployment, raising awareness of new technologies and facilitating market uptake.

Finally, nestled up alongside these two efforts, the private-sector Breakthrough Energy coalition will invest to develop technologies that are at an early stage, helping them to reduce costs and prepare products to be rolled out on a large scale. Such investment completes the cosy blanket covering all stages of clean energy innovation, alongside the R&D funding from Mission Innovation and the CEM support for deployment and policy expertise.

A stitch in time…

So now I see that the meetings last week in San Francisco were exciting because they brought these three groups together, complementary organisations with a common goal, each pushing at different parts in the innovation chain.

These coordinated initiatives give the ground for hope. As my colleague, Ajay Gambhir, noted in his blog at the end of last year: “getting renewables to the point where they can compete with coal – without government support – is not a matter of either funding RD&D or funding deployment and market expansion activities. We need the right balance of both. Innovation is a complex challenge, and different technologies benefit from different combinations of public RD&D and public deployment support at different times.“

Where we are still lacking is in the detail of the Mission Innovation activities, which nobody has yet defined, and the events last week didn’t offer the clarity that I had hoped for. For now, countries committed to doubling their R&D spend in energy will define their priorities individually. And so, for those of us ready and waiting to do the research, there is still some more waiting to do…

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Read more: Imperial to set up a cleantech hub at new White City Campus 

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