Small scale low-carbon technologies could be key for net-zero

The UK will reach its net-zero emissions target faster if it invests in smaller scale, affordable low-carbon technologies rather than large projects like high-speed rail or nuclear power plants, according to a new study by an international team of researchers.

Examples given include solar panels on houses to electric bikes, heat pumps, and shared taxis, as they have lower investment risks, a greater potential for improvement in both cost and performance, and more scope for reducing energy demand – key attributes that will help accelerate progress on decarbonisation, according to the study.

Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, and the University Institute of Lisbon, collected data on a wide variety of energy technologies at different scales and then tested how well they performed against nine characteristics of accelerated low-carbon transformation, such as cost, innovation and accessibility.

They then asked: is it better to prioritise large-scale and expensive technologies, such as nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, high-speed transit systems, and whole-building retrofits?

Or is it better to focus on schemes that are smaller in size, lower in cost, and more adaptable so they scale not by becoming bigger but by producing more of them?

Publishing their findings in the journal Science, the team finds that subject to certain conditions, smaller alternatives out-perform larger scale technologies in a number of important ways.

As well as being quick to deploy, smaller-scale technologies 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 help create more jobs, giving the government a ‘sound basis’ for strengthening climate policies.

Lead researcher Dr Charlie Wilson, at UEA, said: ‘A rapid proliferation of low-carbon innovations distributed throughout our energy system, cities, and homes can help 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.’

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