Energy technologies in 2030 – the first chapter of ICARUS experts’ elicitation

A major role in combating climate change will be played by innovative technologies that are less carbon intensive than the current ones. In the ICARUS project we investigate several technologies for the transport and energy sectors in order to understand if they will become commercial and common technologies, in future decades.

In these first months of the project, we carried out almost 40 elicitations of experts’ judgments focusing on solar technologies and the transport sector. In particular, we analysed the expected role of photovoltaic technologies, of concentrated solar power, of electric drive vehicles and of biofuels for transportation. Results will be available on the web site in the fall.

Other technologies, such as nuclear, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, will be analysed in the forthcoming months. Solar technologies are currently playing a major role in the diffusion of renewable energies: from 2008 to 2009 the installed capacity in Europe has more than doubled (+159%). However, the contribution to the production of electric energy is still very limited. In our research we look for possible innovations that might trigger a real development of solar technologies: from solar panels that allow building integration, to concentrated solar plants in the deserts of Northern Africa.

In the transport sector there are few alternatives to conventional fossil fuels.  Two of these alternatives are electric drive vehicles and biofuels. The first one implies the diffusion of new vehicles that substitute cars with internal combustion engines. The second one entails the substitution of the fuel in the same type of vehicles we use today. These are two radically different visions of the future. However, given the pressing need for an alternative to gasoline, it is useful to support both research paths.

Regarding electric drive vehicles, there is a broad consensus that, in a medium term perspective, Li-ion batteries will be the most promising technology. On the contrary, research on biofuels is extremely distributed among different technologies and no consensus exists across experts. In particular, the success of second and third generation biofuels depends on technologies that span from gasification, to oil hydrogenation or algal oil extraction. This diversification could lead to one or more environmentally sound technologies that can compete with fossil fuels.

Many experts pointed out the role of consumers’ behaviours and preferences in shaping the diffusion of alternative transport technologies. For example, the operation and maintenance needed by electric cars in order to ensure proper functioning and a long lifespan, are extremely different from those of internal combustion vehicles (consider the time needed to recharge a battery compared to the time needed to fill a tank). Similarly, the diversification of vehicles for urban or long distance travel, the diffusion of recharging stations, the effect of new technologies on public transportation, will concur in affecting the way we experience transportation. Eventually, technologies will not be the only player for a more sustainable future: a strong contribution will come from our own institutions, behaviour and choices. For this reason we developed a dedicated section in the surveys that will allow the consideration of experts’ opinions on the broadest possible definition of the term technological change.