Climatic Change

, Volume 118, Issue 2, pp 381-395

First online:

Future capacity growth of energy technologies: are scenarios consistent with historical evidence?

  • C. WilsonAffiliated withTyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia Email author 
  • , A. GrublerAffiliated withInternational Institute for Applied Systems AnalysisSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
  • , N. BauerAffiliated withPotsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • , V. KreyAffiliated withInternational Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
  • , K. RiahiAffiliated withInternational Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

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Future scenarios of the energy system under greenhouse gas emission constraints depict dramatic growth in a range of energy technologies. Technological growth dynamics observed historically provide a useful comparator for these future trajectories. We find that historical time series data reveal a consistent relationship between how much a technology’s cumulative installed capacity grows, and how long this growth takes. This relationship between extent (how much) and duration (for how long) is consistent across both energy supply and end-use technologies, and both established and emerging technologies. We then develop and test an approach for using this historical relationship to assess technological trajectories in future scenarios. Our approach for “learning from the past” contributes to the assessment and verification of integrated assessment and energy-economic models used to generate quantitative scenarios. Using data on power generation technologies from two such models, we also find a consistent extent - duration relationship across both technologies and scenarios. This relationship describes future low carbon technological growth in the power sector which appears to be conservative relative to what has been evidenced historically. Specifically, future extents of capacity growth are comparatively low given the lengthy time duration of that growth. We treat this finding with caution due to the low number of data points. Yet it remains counter-intuitive given the extremely rapid growth rates of certain low carbon technologies under stringent emission constraints. We explore possible reasons for the apparent scenario conservatism, and find parametric or structural conservatism in the underlying models to be one possible explanation.