Up-scaling, formative phases, and learning in the historical diffusion of energy technologies
The 20th century has witnessed wholesale transformation in the energy system marked by the pervasive diffusion of both energy supply and end-use technologies. Just as whole industries have grown, so too have unit sizes or capacities. Analysed in combination, these unit level and industry level growth patterns reveal some consistencies across very different energy technologies. First, the up-scaling or increase in unit size of an energy technology comes after an often prolonged period of experimentation with many smaller-scale units. Second, the peak growth phase of an industry can lag these increases in unit size by up to 20 years. Third, the rate and timing of up-scaling at the unit level is subject to countervailing influences of scale economies and heterogeneous market demand. These observed patterns have important implications for experience curve analyses based on time series data covering the up-scaling phases of energy technologies, as these are likely to conflate industry level learning effects with unit level scale effects. The historical diffusion of energy technologies also suggests that low carbon technology policies pushing for significant jumps in unit size before a ‘formative phase’ of experimentation with smaller-scale units are risky.
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