Global Trends in Energy Technology Innovation

An Introduction

By Wilma Pretorius, Ph.D.

[Jun 18, 2007]

In a mere 100 years, the Western world has, with much skill but little foresight, managed to create a society built almost entirely on a finite source of cheap, dirty energy. We are consuming the equivalent of millions of years' worth of solar energy captured by ancient microorganisms and plants, and locked up in vast oil, gas and coal reserves at rates so high that we will probably have no economically recoverable deposits of oil and gas left by 2050(1). This situation is compounded by our dependence on foreign oil and an increasing number of environmental concerns(2). Inevitably, we must solve our energy problems in ways that are both profitable and environmentally aware.

It is clear that we must use a multi-pronged approach, including innovation in technology and fundamental changes in our daily actions. Without changing how and what we grow as food, how we transport ourselves, package our goods or build our homes, we will not become sustainable. The world has, after all, become quite flat(3), and so our solutions must by implication involve all levels of industry, society and government. The human race must evolve in the socio-political and moral landscape: indeed, we must undergo a global transformation. In this series of articles, I will explore the state of current energy technology innovation and how they will come to shape our future world.

It is astounding to realize that 35% of global energy is currently obtained from oil exported from politically unstable regions, that we, in the developed world, thereby fund repressive regimes, steeped in corruption and armed conflict(4). The US currently imports 60% of its oil. Of approximately 20 million barrels used in the U.S. per day, 9 million are used for passenger vehicle fuel and 3 million for diesel fueled trucks and buses(5). Worldwide, consumption of foreign (i.e. Middle Eastern) oil amounts to nearly 60 million barrels per day. To compound the political implications of this, most scientists now agree that the unusual changes in planetary climate are the direct result of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere, mainly from the combustion of fossil fuel. Paradoxically, while R&D investment has increased in almost all other industry sectors worldwide, it has steadily declined in the energy R&D sector since the 1970 global oil crisis, with the sole exception of Japan (Figure 1).

Despite sharp declines since the 1980s, the bulk of energy R&D is also still focused on nuclear energy; specifically, nuclear support technologies such as nuclear safety, decommissioning of nuclear reactors, and fissile materials control (Figure 2). Nuclear power is again being proposed as a candidate for highly energy intensive extraction of oil from sand and limestone deposits in Canada's Northeastern Alberta(7). It appears that nuclear energy is here to stay, although significant, unquantifiable risks may be associated with its continued use. The oil sands industry, incidentally, is and will continue to be the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Canada. A recently formed consortium of companies called GeoPower in the Oil Sands (GeoPOS) will test the feasibility of using safer, more sustainable geothermal energy for the extraction of oil-bound in sand and limestone(8).

While planetary coal reserves are estimated to last for at least another 200 -300 years, investment in clean coal technologies by the developed world has sharply declined (Figure 2) since peak levels in 1980(2). Global energy R&D expenditures by developing countries, aimed at addressing the needs of developing nations, are probably miniscule(2). Developing nations, including China, will continue to rely predominantly on coal for at least the next 20-30 years, as it has proven recoverable coal reserves which amount to approximately 114.5 billion tons, third in the world(5). It is therefore good news that some developing countries are indeed investing in their own energy R&D, to the tune of nearly 3.1 billion U.S$ for China in 2000 and close to 1 billion for India between 1996-1997(9,10), and this is expected to rise.

Meanwhile, energy conservation R&D has almost quadrupled in the last 30 years, with Japan and the U.S. leading the way. Indeed, Japan invests heavily in renewable energy technologies, including government-sponsored Sunshine and New Sunshine Initiatives, and as a result, currently the country accounts for 40% of all global photovoltaic production. This parallels energy trends in other countries of the European Union, for example, Germany, which has recently become a world leader in wind energy systems(2). The E.U. through its Framework Programmes for Research and Development is also investing increasing amounts in R&D related to renewable fuels, including hydrogen and cellulosic ethanol, corn-derived ethanol, production of bio-diesel fuel from a variety of plant organic fats and oils, and gasification-pyrolysis systems, approximately Euro890 million for the latter and Euro670 million for sustainable surface transportation. Canada has the potential to become a leader in wood waste to energy systems, given its large forest products industry, and is a world leader in many fuel cell technologies, with over $200 million invested annually, mostly from private companies(11).

There are, however, significant barriers to the efficient deployment and market penetration of new, sustainable energy technologies, including high cost, information dissemination, and adequate financing. But "slow capital stock turnover", or SCST, and infrastructure modifications(2) are probably two most detrimental aspects to the immediate adoption of new energy technologies. SCST relates to the typically long life span, between 15 for automobiles and 50 years for power plants, of older technologies. And so, unless there is a mandated phase out of these old systems, such as the recent U.S. Clean Air Act to replace dirty coal fired power plants or Japanese Shaken to limit the age of cars on the road, there will be significant lag period between the development of new energy technologies and their full scale commercialization and adoption in every day life. The same problem comes to the fore when significant changes to energy infrastructure are required prior to the large scale installation of a new technology: think, for example, of the specialized storage and distribution systems for hydrogen based technologies(12).

On this basis, it is clear that even with accelerated rates of investment in energy R&D, we should be focusing on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing energy use through simple conservation coupled to the modification of existing energy technologies to perform cleaner and more efficiently during the current 20-50 year lag period, prior to full scale transitioning to new energy technologies. Perhaps ironically, developing countries may actually be in a position to transition to sustainable energy technologies faster than we are, because they lack a complex, entangled energy infrastructure. In any case, such a transition may be only feasible with our substantial assistance and technical support.

In the next articles in this series, I will examine emerging energy technologies, specifically, nanotechnology, the new Cleantech, and what role it will play during the next few decades, where we will need to improve old technologies in transportation, energy generation, and construction. And later, I will turn my attention to the advances in carbon sequestration and renewable fuels production. Could it be that a few decades from now, we will be employing methods used by our distant ancestors dwelling in the Amazonian forests nearly 7000 years ago as a matter of routine? Will we finally see the bigger picture, connect the dots, and evolve?

Online Simulations:

"....the best way to learn about a complex system is by poking and prodding it. Indeed, that might be the only way to truly internalize something really complex: You have to experience it for yourself. " Clive Thompson

US Oil Policy Simulation

What would it take to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil? In this simulation, you are elected President of the United States on a platform of reducing U.S. dependence on oil imports. How will you achieve your goals?

Figure 1:

Figure 1: Graph - Trends in energy research and development by country
Trends in Energy research, development and demonstration expenditures by major International Energy Agency member governments. Data gaps exist for France (2003-2005) and Italy (1974-1976, 1993 and 1999). Data extracted from the IEA Technology R&D database online at:

Figure 2:

Figure 1: Graph - Trends in energy research and development by energy type
Trends in Energy research, development and demonstration expenditures by major International Energy Agency member governments, by catergory. Data extracted form the IEA Technology R&D database online at:

Discuss This Article

Discuss this article on our official blog

Sustainablity the Series

  • Biofueling the future Feb 11, 2008
    Whatever their motivation - be it energy independence for the U.S. or an attempt at fighting climate change for Europe - world governments are now heavily subsidizing biofuels.
  • Nanotech-cleantech: bridging the gap to real sustainability Aug 15, 2007
    What is nanotech, how can it help us bridge the gap to sustainablity and what are its risks? This article takes a closer look at these issues.

Related Articles

  • Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs): Are They Worth the Switch?
    Do compact Fluorescent lights really save money, how well do they perform? See what we found out, then use our Javascript calculator to calculate your potential savings.
  • Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Energy of the Future
    Energy sources of the future will have to be cleaner and more efficient than current sources - hydrogen fuel cells fulfill these requirements; however, several challenges remain before we will see wide-spread commercialization.
  • CO2 Pollution and Global Warming
    Why is carbon dioxide, a life sustaining, compound considered pollution and how do scientists know that humans are responsible for the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming?

Related Editors' Blog Entries

  • Coal-to-liquids vs. energy efficiency and renewable energies Jun 14, 2007
    For just a moment, let us compare and contrast CTL against other measures to reduce our dependence upon foreign oil and fossil fuel energies.
  • Subsidies for coal to liquids compared to funding for other energy research Jun 4, 2007
    Bills in Congress to provide tens of billions of dollars in subsidies tax credits and loan guarantees for coal to liquids production got me wondering just how much money the United States spends each year on energy research and development.
  • Congress proposes massive subsidies to convert coal into diesel fuel May 31, 2007
    Key congressional lawmakers with the support of intense lobbying by the coal industry are pushing legislation through both the House of Representatives and the Senate that could potentially provide tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, low interest loans and tax breaks to the coal industry to produce diesel fuel, jet fuel and fuel oil from coal.
  • Earth Day resolutions you should make Apr 22, 2007
    Being green for a day might be just fine on Saint Patrick's Day for those of us who are not Irish, but being environmentally "green" only on Earth Day is shallow and shortsighted. If for no other reason than one's own economic self-interest, one should at least be "light green" every day of the year. There are many things one can do that are better for the environment, save money and don't negatively impact on one's quality of life.


  2. Gallagher et al., 2006. Annual Rev. Environ. Resourc. 31:193-237.
  3. Friedman, T. The World is Flat. 1st edition, Farrar, Straus, Reese, and Giroux, 2005
  4. UN Dev. Programme/UN Dep. Econ. Soc. Aff./World Energy Counc. 2000. World Energy Assessment: Energy and the Challenge of Sustainability, ed. J Goldenberg. New York: UN Dev. Programme. 508 pp.
  5. US Energy Inf. Agency. 2005. Annual energy outlook.
  6. Z. Yu, China Energy Research Society,
  7. Ebner, D. Shell eyes nuclear power in oil sands. (Globe and Mail, May 21, 2007).
  8. (2007)
  9. Dev. Res. Cent. 2005. China National Energy Strategy and Policy 2020. Beijing, China: State Counc.
  10. Sagar AD. 2002. India's energy and energy R&D landscape: a brief overview. Belfer Cent. Sci. Int. Aff. Work. Pap. 2002-08. Energy Technol. Innov. Proj., Harvard Univ.
  12. Ogden JM. 1999. Prospects for building a hydrogen energy infrastructure. Annu. Rev. Energy Environ. 24:227-79

Citing this page

If you need to cite this page, you can copy this text: