COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down, but not necessarily all in a bad way. Several reports released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in the past two months discuss what they describe as “a unique opportunity” to ensure a more rapid structural decline of global greenhouse gases while boosting economic growth and creating millions of new jobs that would help to alleviate the current crisis.

These issues were also the focus of discussions at a virtual, top-level IEA Clean Energy Transitions Summit held on 9 July that incorporated three panel discussions. One of these pinpointed the need to accelerate innovative clean energy technology, particularly in the fields of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), batteries, bioenergy, and hydrogen, all of which have the potential to enable the world as we know it to shift to a low-carbon existence. Offshore gas and oil platforms were also highlighted.

Energy Technology & Clean Energy Innovation

An IEA report, Energy Technology Perspectives 2020, released at the beginning of July 2020 discusses ways of driving economic development globally by stepping up the development and implementation of technologies required for clean, resilient, and sustainable energy systems.

Available for free download, the report discusses the vital role governments have to play in clean energy technology innovation and it tracks the progress of clean energy innovation efforts. It also examines the potential impact of COVID-19 on clean energy innovation. Recognizing the widespread demand for sustainable development throughout the energy sector, the report emphasizes the need for much faster progress while, at the same time, acknowledging that there are some potentially negative impacts COVID-19 could have on these technologies.

But the thrust of the 185-page document is the rare, rather unusual opportunity governments have to speed up the transition towards clean energy technologies and maintain their momentum. At the same time, there certainly are threats.

Positives & Negatives for Clean Energy Technology Innovation Amidst COVID-19

While the threats of COVID-19 to our health and economies are harsh and ongoing, technological innovation has a vital role when it comes to the quest for a sustainable future. It is a powerful driver of structural change and it does attract massive investment both from governments and from the private sector.

COVID-19 has drawn attention to the fact that clean energy technology, which is vital for the achievement of global net-zero goals, brings some exciting economic benefits that could impact positively across the globe. Clean energy innovation efforts are labor-intensive, but the challenge is to both maintain existing jobs and to generate new ones.

Much depends on money, with budgets all over the world threatened by the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, there is considerable optimism that governments of first world countries and major economies will boost innovation efforts with substantial funding in response to the coronavirus crisis during the latter part of 2020.

The Potential Impact of the Coronavirus on Clean Energy Technologies

Before the emergence of COVID-19, 2020 had been highlighted as a critical year for several countries including China and the European Union. While policies are still prioritized, the harsh pressures of a hugely uncertain global economy have forced countries, regions, cities, and companies to shift their focus to the management of lost revenue and developing plans for a rapid (if possible) economic recovery.

Happily, some governments have already addressed issues of clean energy innovation in their policy responses for recovery (in numerical order from the oldest to the most recent) including:

  • France announced on 25 March that it had set up a mammoth fund to support innovation projects relating to the automotive and aerospace industry. Goals include the development, by 2028, of an intercontinental carbon-neutral plane powered by hydrogen-based or biofuels, as well as a hydrogen or hybrid-electric plane that can fly shorter distances.
  • The United Kingdom launched a fund on 20 April that will help innovative start-ups.
  • Canada announced economy recovery measures on 15 May that have a strong focus on increased research and innovation.
  • Portugal, which has been in public consultation since 22 May, is developing a national hydrogen strategy that will fund existing and new projects to the tune of billions to 2030.
  • The European Union launched a legislative recovery process on 29 May that requires the generation of investments linked to clean energy transition and a green economy. These measures will be implemented in January 2021.
  • Germany announced a stimulus package on 3 June specifically to address climate change, digitization, and innovation. There is R&D funding for energy storage and a multi-billion hydrogen strategy focused on technologies related to electrolysis.

Of course, the global clean energy system is incredibly complex, which makes it extremely difficult to assess how COVID-19 will ultimately affect the acceleration of new clean energy technologies, and the widespread uncertainty of future, long-term impacts compounds this conundrum.

However, since the measures listed above are clearly in direct response for an urgent economic recovery, COVID-19 has certainly played a role in potentially speeding up development.

A major concern, though, is that clean energy innovation could be negatively impacted by a lack of finance which will lead to spending cutbacks, particularly in the private sector.

Need for Speed in Implementing Energy Innovation Policies

The various elements of the international net-zero emissions policy remain unchanged by COVID-19. However, the coronavirus highlights the urgent need to tackle some elements immediately as governments start working on recovery plans that will start to repair and stimulate economic activity.

A basic plan for sustainable recovery is detailed in another IEA report, titled simply, Sustainable Recovery. Recommendations identify various areas where investment is needed for both long- and short-term recovery. These relate to buildings, transport, electricity, fuels, and industry in several sectors that involve energy efficiency.

The plan has been designed to run for a three-year period from 2021, and investment is intended to reshape economies so that 2030 net-zero goals can be met. There’s not much time left.

Meanwhile, governments will be looking to boost labor-intensive economic activities that can be rapidly deployed. Suitable R&D projects will include those that can be initiated and, with the appropriate funding, put into action quickly.

In the meantime, professionals, including designers, architects, and engineers working in the construction industry need to pull out the stops to get their building and retrofit projects in line with net-zero targets. Particular attention needs to be paid to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC), ventilation systems, lighting, and water systems, with upgraded indoor air quality taking the top spot in the fight against COVID-19.