Technological Readiness

A Way To Address Emerging Technologies In Climate Plans
Alexander S. Kolker, Ph.D.

Louisiana now has a climate plan, adopted on February 1 of 2022, that seeks to put the state on a path to net zero emissions by 2050.  However, this plan relies on a range of technologies that are not yet in widespread use. This includes offshore wind, large scale battery systems, hydrogen power, and along with plans to bury carbon dioxide deep underground – often termed carbon capture and storage. The success of the plan depends in part on whether these technologies can be built and deployed – often at a large scale- in the less than 30 years. It is reasonable to ask whether these plans area feasible from a technical perspective.  

One way to address this issue of feasibility is through the use of, “Technology Readiness Factors,” which is a structured way to evaluate the state of research, development and implementation of various technologies. Technology readiness factors were initially developed in the 1970s by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and have since been more widely adopted by government agencies the private sector.  This approach can be applied to individual technologies, and to system of technologies, and it could be useful Louisiana’s climate initiative- and other similar efforts. 

            The technology readiness factors typically follow a scale that runs from 1-9, or in some cases 1-11. At the low end of the scale are technologies that exist at the basic research level, the middle range includes technologies that are technologically feasible but which have not been fully developed, and with higher numbers including technologies that are in development and demonstration mode. The highest number is applied to technologies that are fully operable. 

Figure 1. Technological readiness levels reported by the International Energy Agency.

            This post provides an overview of technology readiness factors, and how they can be adopted to improve Louisiana’s climate action plan moving forward.  Technological readiness factors provide more robust and nuanced approach to judging whether technologies referenced in a plan can be deployed on time frame that is needed.  They can also help set priorities for what projects can be deployed today, which projects might be deployable in near to medium term, and which projects are decades away from functioning. 

            To get a sense of how technology readiness factors could work, try to imagine how an engineer would gauge the technological readiness of a new smart phone system. A smart phone requires electronics within the phone, software code to run programs and aps, it needs to connect to a network of cell phone towers. When developing a new system, each of these technologies could be in a different state or readiness. In this hypothetical system, one can image that entirely new electronics are needed, existing software mostly works but must be updated, and the system can work on existing cell towers. In this case, the electronics that need to be developed would be scored with a low number, the software would receive a moderate score, and the existing cell towers would get the highest score.

            Technology readiness factors can be applied to technologies proposed in Louisiana’s climate plan. Projects like utility scale battery systems, hydrogen-based fuels, wind and solar power, carbon capture and utilization and storage, all rest on systems that are in various states of technological readiness and effective implementation relies on deploying technologically-ready projects. The approach can also work for natural systems that are part of the plan- like forestry projects, or coastal restoration projects. Additional factors should be considered before systems are deployed, including their suitability to Louisiana’s environment, safety risks, and community impacts. 

            One area that warrants attention is carbon capture and underground storage- (CCS). This approach envisions pumping pressurized and liquified CO2 deep beneath earth’s surface, where- hopefully, it will rest for thousands. CCS projects are complex, and often varied in their approach. Many CCS project seek to take carbon dioxide directly from industrial facilities, though some envision pulling it directly from the air. Some projects will transport cold, pressurized CO2 via pipelines a considerable distance before it is pumped underground.  

            Implementing CCS on a large scale is technologically complex. It will require technologies that separate CO2 from other gases, and technologies that pressurize CO2 into a liquid, safely transport this fluid and pump it locations underground where it will stay for beyond the foreseeable future. This information must be combined with a geological studies of the subsurface to know if this CO2 will stay trapped for the long term. Some of these technologies exist, some are in development, and climate action plans would be wise to evaluate their readiness to be deployed.  

            In 2020, the International Energy Agency presented an analysis of technological readiness levels for carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) projects. This analysis, based on a 1 to 11 scale, shows a technological chain that includes CO2’s capture, transport, storage and usage. For each of these stage, multiple technologies are under development, many of which are in different states of readiness.  This report cites over two-dozen CO2 capture technologies that are under development. For example, CO2 capture from natural gas combustion is at a higher stage of readiness than CO2 sequestration from coal combustion, in part because burning natural gas produces a relatively pure stream of CO2, whereas coal combustion produces a sootier mixture that requires additional cleaning. CO2 usage for enhanced oil recovery – a stage useful for the energy industry- is at a more advanced stage of readiness than long term CO2 storage in saline reservoir – which is more useful for reducing global warming’s impacts. 

Figure 2. Technological readiness levels for various stages of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) chain, as envisioned by the International Energy Agency in 2020. Note that the colors here connect to those in Figure 1.

            This state of readiness can help us understand the success of one of the largest CCS demonstration projects – the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project near  Decatur, Illinois. This project took about a million metric tons of CO2 and injected it into a reservoir that was directly under the facility. The CO2 came from fermentation, which produces a relatively pure stream of the gas. Since the injection site was adjacent to the facility, there was little need transport the product by pipeline.  In contrast, Louisiana has produces over 200 million metric tons of CO2 – or its equivalent- per year, and only a fraction of which is in a pure stream. While published reports indicate that the Illinois project has worked relatively effectively so far (see citations below), it uses technologies that are in a higher state of readiness – and smaller in magnitude- than what is needed in Louisiana. 

Figure 3. The Davis Pond Freshwater Diversion. This project can be viewed as a demonstration phase project for a large scale coastal restoration project.

            An analysis of technological readiness can be applied to renewable energy, and the components in the renewable energy supply chain. For example, electricity generation from many forms of wind and solar power are at a high state of readiness, but the battery storage necessary to keep power supplies on when it is dark or the winds are not blowing is at a lower state of readiness. 

            Technological readiness factors can also be applied to natural systems. The state of technological readiness for forestry-based projects is high- it is currently possible to remove CO2 from the air by planting trees in large numbers. On the other hand, large scale river diversions such as those proposed by Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan are at a moderately high – but not the highest- state of technological readiness. Demonstration scale river diversions have been constructed at places like Davis Pond and Caernarvon, as have large scale flood control projects like the Bonnet Carre Spillway. However large river diversions, like the proposed mid-Barataria Diversion, have been through extensive engineering and planning, but have not yet been constructed. 

Figure 4. Map of solar resources for the United States, which could be included as part of an environmental suitability study of solar power in Louisiana.

            Once systems are ready, other issues must be examined, including environmental suitability and safety. For renewable energy projects, the environmental suitability is related to the amount of energy that can be generated from that technology in this state. For example, the environmental suitability of solar power in Louisiana is different from the environmental suitability of solar power in Arizona (which has a greater capacity that Louisiana) or the Pacific Northwest (which has a lower capacity than Louisiana). 

            As part of the efforts to judge whether a technology can be deployed, safety risks will also need to be evaluated. A safety evaluation that includes risks to nearby communities is one way to address environmental justice concerns.

A method to address safety risks, as envisioned by the US Department of Energy.

            Overall, examining technological readiness is one part of the bigger picture of evaluating the potential for success of Louisiana’s climate initiative. Given that climate change is a growing concern- addressing this challenge in a serious and rigorous manner can help prioritize the projects that will be most likely to benefit the region and the planet.  

Sources And References

International Energy Agency (2020). Energy Technology Perspectives 2020. Special report on carbon capture utilization and storage, CCUS in clean energy transitions. International Energy Agency.  171 p.

Louisiana (2022). Louisiana Climate Action Plan. Climate initiatives task force recommendations to the governor. 172p.

McDonald, S. (2017). Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture & Storage Project. Eliminating CO2 Emissions from the Production of Bio Fuels – A ‘Green’ Carbon Process

US Department of Energy (2010). Standard review plan (SRP). Technology readiness assessment report. Corporate critical decisions (CD) review and approval framework associated with nuclear facility capital and major construction projects. DOE-EM-SRP-2010.

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