A goal of this site is to evaluate the technologies that are proposed for slowing down the pace of climate change and/or mitigating its effects. Such an evaluation consists of the following steps.
Will it work?
Can it be implemented at scale?
Can it be implemented in sufficient time?
Is it too costly?
What are the potential side effects?
Will it create a large ‘CO2 pulse’, i.e., will the effort required to develop and implement the new technology require the use of large amounts of fossil fuels?
In order to provide a framework for an evaluation the following simple Phase-Gate approach is used.
Credit: Ian Sutton
The sketch shows a highly simplified view of how a project develops. At each phase the alternative energy idea under consideration is evaluated for technical and commercial feasibility. Once the idea has been evaluated it leaves the Phase in which it is located and enters a Gate. At that point one of three things happen. The first, and easily the most common decision, is to Stop the project at that point on the grounds that it is no longer worth further investment, often because it is not technically feasible when scaled up. If there are some doubts about bringing the idea to a complete halt, it can be put on Hold.
The second option is used when the idea seems to have promise but it is decided that further work is needed in order to provide a proper evaluation. In this case the idea is Recycled back into its current Phase.
If the idea is considered to be viable, both technically and commercially, then the third option is to move it forward out of the Gate and into the next Phase.
The following provides further description for the requirements of each Phase.
Phase I — Concept
At Phase I an idea is generated and its basic feasibility is established. The time required at this phase varies enormously depending on the technology that is being investigated. Sometimes many years, even decades, are required. For example, work on the peaceful application of nuclear fusion started in the 1950s. Yet, in the year 2018 the International Atomic Energy Agency stated,
. . . its potential to generate electricity at a commercial scale is several decades away . . .
(International Atomic Energy Agency, 2018)
If that statement continues to hold true, then nuclear fusion is not a solution to the climate crisis.
Given the short amount of time available any proposed technology that is still at Phase I is unlikely to be available in time for a major scale-up and implementation program. Nevertheless, we should continue working on new ideas that show promise. It is possible that one of them may turn out to be a deus ex machina, something that will provide a welcome surprise.
Phase II — Demonstrate
Once an idea has cleared the Phase I (Concept) stage, it needs to show that it can be scaled up in order to demonstrate that it can work at a commercial scale.
Carbon capture and the use of ammonia as a fuel are at this level. Both have been shown to work on a small scale — they are now being tested at full size. Carbon capture units that pull a significant amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere are being built at multiple locations. Ammonia as a fuel is being seriously evaluated by the shipping industry.
The idea then has to be evaluated for financial feasibility. Either it shows a potential for profit such that private investors are willing to fund the work, or its social importance is so great that it justifies public funding.
If it looks as if the concept has commercial merit, and if funding has been obtained (either from private or government sources), then the idea can clear the next gate and move on to design and engineering of specific projects, the Commercial Phase.
Phase III — Commercialize
If the technology has demonstrated that it works at scale, and that it is commercially feasible, it moves into Phase III. A standard design is established, a large number of units are built, and they are commissioned and operated.
At this phase the technology is no longer analyzed in general terms. Issues such as size or capacity need to be determined along with a host of other local issues such as the customer base, national and local regulations and codes, signing contracts with suppliers, and hiring a labor force.
The use of hydrogen as a fuel falls into this category. Hydrogen is not in widespread use, but there are a few hydrogen powered vehicles on the road.
During Phase III expenditures increase exponentially.
Phase IV — Implement
Once a concept has cleared the Phase III Gate it enters what is probably the most difficult part of the project; it has to show that it can be expanded to address world-wide climate change problems quickly and at the required scale.
Solar and wind power are at that stage now. The technologies are well established, and are in widespread use. However, as we see in the next chapter, they still only provide about 6% of the world’s energy. This is an encouraging start, but it took 20 years to get there. If they are to be the primary solution to the world’s energy needs, they will have to increase to 85% or more within the next 30 years. This is a heavy lift.