Low-emission technologies need assist from policymakers -- report

Several low-emission technologies have the potential to transform the transportation sector within five years if policymakers and regulators can help clear hurdles to commercial markets, according to a new report.

The report, released Tuesday by the consulting firm Accenture, identifies 12 technologies -- including algae-based biofuels, next-generation internal combustion engines and electrification -- that it considers most likely to quickly transform the fuels sector.

But those technologies will need help, the report says.

"Never before have we demanded so much from our regulators and governments," Melissa Stark, senior executive at Accenture and the report's author, said in a statement. "The science has made enormous progress, but it now requires government leadership to accelerate the commercial viability of these low-emission technologies."

The report recommends that policymakers use mandates, tax incentives and direct investment to help the technologies develop. Also needed, the report says, are new policies for intellectual property, synthetic biology, battery technology, and the relationship between energy and water in biofuel production.


"Our policymakers need to understand the technologies enough to make the necessary trade-off decisions quickly and to address issues such as genetic modification and intellectual property rights head-on," Stark said. "They will also need to provide financial support and consumer incentives."

The report suggests that companies put scientists and engineers in leadership positions to drive technology development and help shape policy and regulatory decisions. Businesses, it says, should also improve cooperation among multiple industrial sectors, such as the battery, utilities and car industries.

Among the most promising technologies, Accenture says, algae-based biofuels will be the most difficult and will take the longest to bring to commercial scale.

"Technologically the algae industry is very fragmented -- possibly the most fragmented of all the industries covered in this report," the report says. "As companies try to find the lowest cost option, several different operating models are emerging."

The report notes that while many companies suggest they will reach commercial scale within five years, significant technical and cost constraints remain. Instead, the report says, the algae industry will take 10 years to reach commercial scale.

To bridge the gap to long-term solutions like algae-based fuels, regulators should look to short-term existing technologies. For instance, significant efficiency gains are possible in next-generation internal combustion engines, but higher efficiency standards will be required.

Production of transportation fuel from waste currently exists in labs and in pilot-scale projects, but the technology has the potential to solve two problems at once: production of a renewable fuel and landfill reduction. But there is little legislative support or financial incentive to further develop the technology, Accenture says, and increasing that could kick-start the industry.

But the potential game-changer for the traditional fuels sector would be electrification of vehicles, the report says. That technology, however, is held back by battery costs and constraints.

"Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle engines could be the most disruptive technology, but the advances required in the cost, performance and safety of batteries remain significant," Stark said. "Batteries are to electrification what feedstock is to biofuels and we have supply, supply chain and sustainability challenges to overcome."

Public charging infrastructure is needed to scale the technology, but instituting that will require global agreements on technical standards as well as capable smart grids. Initial scale-up in the next five to 10 years is not dependent on smart grids, however, the report says.

Click here to read a summary of the report.

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