In the discussion on innovations for sustainable development, radical innovations are often seen as necessary to establish eco-efficient technological systems. It is assumed that only a regime shift from the existing (unsustainable) technological system to a more sustainable one can solve the ecological problems. In this perspective radical innovations are needed for a successful transition to a system perceived as sustainable. The justification for radical change 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 reflected in this paper. We examine the diffusion of radical innovations in the field of power plants and the basic obstacles these innovations were confronted with. As an example for the ex-post-analysis we select the case of pressurised pulverised coal combustion as a radical innovation and supercritical coal-fired power plants as an incremental innovation. The analysis shows that pressurised pulverised coal combustion did not fulfil the expectations. Although an improved economic and ecological performance of the radical innovation was expected ex ante, unforeseen innovations were developed for the old technology (supercritical coal-fired power plants). Thus the radical innovation failed. It can be concluded that the dynamics of technical progress and the development of incremental innovations should not be underestimated. Assumed advantages for radical technologies should be verified, and the technology assessment should be regularly updated regarding cost and efficiency advantages. In general 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 energy supply companies to take risks and the dynamics of technological progress facilitating incremental innovations on the basis of conventional reference technology. The conclusion for future research and development (R&D) work in the sector of large-scale power plants is that an innovation is more likely to succeed the more it is geared to 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.
Rennings, Klaus, Peter Markewitz and Stefan Vögele (2009), How Clean is Clean? Incremental Versus Radical Technological Change in Coal-Fired Power Plants, ZEW Discussion Paper No. 09-021, Mannheim. Download