Risks and scalability of new technologies

We are developing ways to assess the risks of existing and new technologies in terms of cost and other performance metrics. This includes asking how such risks may change with the scale of a technology’s adoption. Many evaluations of technologies focus on their long-term potential for improvements due to innovation, but the short term riskiness of technologies is also important for evaluating their viability. Short term risks can arise, for example, from changes in efficiency and cost. Moreover, the overall riskiness of technologies can change with production scale. Here we analyze data and develop models to assess technologies based on their riskiness.

Biofuels supply risks: Previous studies of biofuels have evaluated them based on their greenhouse gas emissions, costs, and potential scale of production. Here we argue that supply risks, a major energy security aspect, are another dimension that should be considered. Biofuels rely on agricultural production as their key input, which makes them potentially subject to risks such as competition with food production. A risky feedstock supply, together with a highly inelastic demand for transportation fuels, can cause substantial price fluctuations, profit volatility, and quantitative shortages, which in turn may have consequences for biofuels firms, consumers, and the economy. The goal of this research project is to build theoretical models and use data to study the costs of biofuels risks, as well as the potential of various risk-mitigation strategies.

We decompose biofuels feedstock supply risks into agriculture supply shocks (due to random events) and competing demand shocks (a function of demand for food crops which is partially unpredictable) and show that the historical yields of major crops used in the biofuels industry show a significant level of volatility. We relate the resilience of the biofuels supply chain to scale and technological specifications and then discuss the merits and limitations of various strategies for reducing the supply risks of biofuels. Our framework is applied to the case of biofuels; however, it provides general insights and analytical frameworks to analyze the performance and scalability potential of other emerging technologies.
  • Ghoddusi H, Cross-Call D, Trancik JE, The supply risks and resilience of biofuels, Proceedings of the Third International Engineering Systems Symposium, CESUN, 2012.
  • Ghoddusi H, Roy M, Trancik, JE, Biofuels supply risks and price volatility, in review. SSRN.

Evaluating the scalability of PV input materials: Photovoltaics (PV) is an energy technology that is promising in its climate change mitigation potential. In order to sustain rapid growth in PV manufacturing, it is important to produce a sufficient quantity of input materials in a cost-effective and timely manner. In this project we evaluate the material requirements of large-scale PV deployment and the supply risks associated with these materials.

In the first part of this project, we ask whether metals production can be scaled up at a pace that matches the rapidly increasing PV deployment levels put forward in aggressive low-carbon energy scenarios. We present a new perspective on the metal requirements of PV deployment by estimating the growth rates required for the annual production of PV metals to satisfy the projected PV deployment levels in 2030. We also compare the required growth rates to the historical growth of a large set of metals in order to assess how realistic the projections are.


Figure 1. Annual production levels of selected PV metals are fitted with an exponential growth curve, for all 18-year periods between 1972 and 2012. The histograms show the average annual growth rates over each 18-year period.

  • Kavlak GMcNerney J, Jaffe, RL, Trancik JE, Growth in metals production for rapid photovoltaics deployment, Proceedings of the 40th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, 2014, pp. 1442-1447 link.
  • Kavlak GMcNerney J, Jaffe RL, Trancik JE, Metals production requirements for rapid photovoltaics deployment, Energy & Environmental Science, 2015, Vol. 8, pp. 1651-1659 linkSSRN linkArXiv link.

In the second part of this project, we study the supply risks of PV metals in order to address concerns regarding the scalability of PV technologies. We are examining the supply risk by using historical metals price and production time series data. The lessons of the past can inform resource planning for today’s and tomorrow’s technologies.