Historical Case Studies of Energy Technology Innovation

Appendix to Chapter 24: Policies for the Energy Technology Innovation System (ETIS) of the Global Energy Assessment.

Innovation is most simply conceived of as novelty, originating from human endeavor and inspiration. Energy technology innovations range from radical new inventions to marginal performance improvements, and encompass social and behavioral changes alongside more visible material changes in technological hardware. Innovation success typically means widespread diffusion and commercial uptake. But this outcome is the culmination of an often lengthy process which runs from research and development through demonstration and trials to early market formation and then diffusion. There are countless pitfalls along the way. The majority of innovation journeys end in failure, some abject, others marginal. Innovation is neither costless nor certain.

What can we learn from innovation histories ranging from widely heralded successes to fast faded failures? Here, we compile a varied set of 20 such innovation histories of energy technology innovation. We are concerned with energy technology innovations ranging from solar photovoltaics in Kenya to end-use appliances in Japan, and from wind power in Europe to hybrid cars in China. We emphasize technological innovations largely at the fringes of our current energy system, but hoped and heralded to play an ever-greater part in an environmental sustainable future.

Indeed, innovation and technological change will be central to the enormous challenges facing the global energy system in mitigating climate change, in providing universal access to modern energy carriers like electricity, and in ensuring the supply and distribution of energy is secure and resilient. The Global Energy Assessment sets out these challenges as well as the possible pathways to their surmounting. These case studies originated as an Appendix to the Global Energy Assessment’s chapter on energy technology innovation. As such, they enrich and deepen this assessment in the GEA, and offers further empirical support for the analytical approach taken.

Table of Contents

Historical Context for Case Studies

1. Energy Transitions - A. Grubler        
2. Technology Diffusion - C. Wilson         


3. Solar Water Heaters (US) - G. Nemet
4. Heat Pumps (Sweden & Switzerland) - B. Kiss, L. Neij & M. Jakob
5. Knowledge Depreciation - A. Grubler & G. Nemet
6. Nuclear Power (France) - A. Grubler


7. Solar Thermal Electricity (US) - G. Nemet
8. Vehicle Efficiency - G. Nemet
9. Hybrid Cars - K.S. Gallagher
10. Solar Photovoltaics - G. Nemet

Actors & Institutions

11. Wind Power - L. Neij & P.D. Andersen
12. End-Use Efficiency (Japan) - O. Kimura
13. Ethanol (Brazil) - D. Meyer, L. Mytelka, R. Press, E.L. Dall'Oglio, P.T. de Sousa Jr. & A. Grubler
14. Rural Solar (Kenya) - D. Kammen & A. Jacobson
15. Synfuels (US) - L. Anadon, G. Nemet & R. Schock
16. Technology Portfolios - A. Gruber, S. Fuss, D. McCollum, V. Krey & K. Riahi


17. Assessment Metrics - C. Wilson
18. Global Financial Resources - A. Grubler, L.D. Anadon, K.S. Gallagher, R. Kempener, A. O'Rourke & C. Wilson
19. R,D&D Investments (Emerging Economies) - R Kempener, L.D. Anadon, K.S. Gallagher & K. Jiang
20. Global End-Use Investments - C. Wilson & A. Grubler

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Last edited: 21 August 2020


Arnulf Grubler

Distinguished Emeritus Research Scholar Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Charlie Wilson

Senior Research Scholar Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

Senior Research Scholar Sustainable Service Systems Research Group - Energy, Climate, and Environment Program

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