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How clean is clean? Incremental versus radical technological change in coal-fired power plants

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  • Rennings, Klaus
  • Markewitz, Peter
  • Vögele, Stefan

Abstract

In the discussion on innovations for sustainable development, radical innovations are frequently called for in order that the transformation of society to a system perceived as sustainable can succeed. The reason given for this is the greater environmental efficiency of these innovations. This hypothesis is, however, not supported by empirical evidence. Against the background of a globally increasing use of coal-burning power plants and the environmental impacts to be expected, the hypothesis that radical innovations are superior to incremental innovations is reviewed on the basis of fossil fuel power plants. This paper examines the diffusion of incremental and radical innovations in the field of power plants and the basic obstacles with which these innovations were confronted. To give an example, Pressurised Pulverised Coal Combustion (PPCC) as a radical innovation and supercritical coal-fired power plants as an incremental innovation are compared. An ex-post analysis of the German R&D portfolio in the past three decades in the field of power plants environmentally shows that technologies which were radical innovations had great difficulties in becoming accepted by possible investors. The future potential of radical innovations in the field of power plant technology is to be regarded as relatively low, especially due to comparatively high cost-pressure, the reluctance of utilities to take risks and the temporal dynamics of technological progress facilitating incremental innovations on the basis of conventional reference technology. The conclusion for future R&D work in the sector of large-scale power plants is that an innovation is more likely to succeed the more it follows established technological trajectories. In the context of energy market liberalisation, hardly any radical innovations are expected in this field of technology. The findings of this paper may also be helpful in evaluating risks or probabilities of success of technologies being developed. As an example technological trajectories currently favoured in CO2 capture are discussed. --

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by ZEW - Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung / Center for European Economic Research in its series ZEW Discussion Papers with number 09-021.

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Date of creation: 2009
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Handle: RePEc:zbw:zewdip:09021

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Keywords: Radical innovations; incremental innovations; carbon capture storage; coal power plants;

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  1. Nancy L. Rose & Paul L. Joskow, 1988. "The Diffusion of New Technologies: Evidence From the Electric Utility Industry," NBER Working Papers 2676, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  7. Peter S. Reinelt & David W. Keith, 2007. "Carbon Capture Retrofits and the Cost of Regulatory Uncertainty," The Energy Journal, International Association for Energy Economics, vol. 0(Number 4), pages 101-128.
  8. Pavitt, Keith, 1984. "Sectoral patterns of technical change: Towards a taxonomy and a theory," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 13(6), pages 343-373, December.
  9. Carrillo-Hermosilla, Javier, 2006. "A policy approach to the environmental impacts of technological lock-in," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 58(4), pages 717-742, July.
  10. Otto, Vincent M. & Reilly, John, 2008. "Directed technical change and the adoption of CO2 abatement technology: The case of CO2 capture and storage," Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 30(6), pages 2879-2898, November.
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