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10 low-carbon technologies: Where do they stand today?

The globe needs to rev up development of 10 clean-energy technologies to avoid dangerous climate change, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), which is holding its annual meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland.

So what are these technologies, how much do they cost and where do they stand today? Let’s take a look:

  1. Onshore wind – This is “(t)he most mature of the renewable energy sectors,” according to the WEF report, “Green Investing 2010: Policy Mechanisms to Bridge the Financing Gap.” As of 2009, it has an installed worldwide capacity of 140 gigawatts (for comparison’s sake, total global energy consumption in 2008  was 15 terawatts, or 15,000 gigawatts). Rolled out to its full potential, onshore wind could provide more than 800 gigawatts of clean energy around the planet. Its current levelised cost of energy (LCOE, or total lifetime cost): $68 – 116/megawatt-hour, with project returns of 10 to 20 per cent, according to New Energy Finance.
  2. Offshore wind – The world currently has 2.4 gigawatts of installed offshore wind capacity, but could bring that up to as much as 120 gigawatts by 2030. For now, however, it’s still met with caution by investors, thanks to a levelised cost of energy of $131 – 245/megawatt-hour and “marginal” project returns.
  3. Solar photovoltaic power – Installations of solar cells, or photovoltaics (PVs), today generate about 21 gigawatts of energy around the globe. The potential capacity is “limited only by economics,” according to the WEF report, and could reach 1,000 gigawatts by 2030. Its payoff for investors is “heavily dependent” on the types of incentives offered, and it still has a high levelised cost of energy of $170 – 450/megawatt-hour. The report describes PV power as “currently uneconomical,” but notes that costs are falling dramatically and are expected to keep doing so.
  4. Solar thermal electricity generation – Also known as concentrated solar power, solar thermal today has a total installed capacity of 616 megawatts (1,000 megawatts = 1 gigawatt). In terms of its full potential, though, the sky is literally the limit, with space and grid connections being the primary constraints. The WEF report states we could potential install 80 gigawatts of solar thermal power by 2030, although the technology today remains “uneconomic,” with a levelised cost of energy of $190 – 250/megawatt-hour and uncertain project returns.
  5. Biomass – Biomass energy includes burning, gasifying and anaerobic digestion of stocks like wood and crop waste. Current global capacity if 45 gigawatts, but that could be increased to 150 gigawatts by 2030. Its levelised cost of energy ranges from $70 to 189/megawatt-hour, depending on the technology used, and it offers a project return of around 10 per cent, depending on where it’s installed and whether feed-in tariffs are available.
  6. Municipal solid waste-to-energy – Because it uses a readily available fuel source — municipal waste — this type of energy carries a low levelised cost of energy: $38 – 157/kilowatt-hour, or just $0.038 to .157/megawatt-hour. Its potential is more limited than other renewables, though, with today’s installed capacity of 18 gigawatts possibly able to reach 50 gigawatts by 2030.
  7. Geothermal power – The globe currently generates about 10 gigawatts of energy by tapping the Earth’s deep-underground heat energy. That capacity could reach 40 gigawatts by 2030, according to the WEF report, with a levelised cost of energy of $55 – 83/megawatt-hour and project returns of 12 to 37 per cent.
  8. Small-scale hydro – Small-scale hydropower installations (projects of less than 50 megawatts) generate about 92 gigawatts of energy today. Expanding those could help us reach a capacity of 328 gigawatts by 2030. Small hydro has a levelised cost of energy of $70 – 120/megawatt-hour, with average project returns of 8 to 13 per cent.
  9. Sugar-based first-generation biofuel – The world currently produces about 80 billion litres of sugarcane-based ethanol, with Brazil being the top source. By 2030, the global level of production could reach 350 billion litres per year, New Energy Finance estimates. Furthermore, ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane is already competitive at today’s petroleum prices, and offers project returns of 8 to 15 per cent.
  10. Cellulosic, algal and other second-generation biofuels – These non-food biofuel sources today have a commissioned production capacity of 100 million litres per year, but we could raise that to 315 billion litres per year by 2030, according to New Energy Finance. While that looks great on paper (or computer screen), the reality is that some of these technologies are still 4 to 7 years away from being competitive with oil, coal or natural gas. Project returns as of today are also uncertain.


  • GIngram
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Alternative energy sources are going to have to be explored in the coming decade, given that oil and gas supplies are not going to be plentiful forever. There’s an interesting blog on the Future Agenda Project website (, where Leo Roodhart of the society of Petroleum Engineers predicts what he believes are the major challenges and possibilities surrounding energy in the coming decade which touches and expands upon the options mentioned here.

  • Ron Wagner
    Posted January 31, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    Biomass includes wood chips from all sources, firewood, wood pellets, and straw.
    These sources are competitive with all other heating sources, aside from waste heat from industrial sources, natural gas, and coal. When locally available they are often cheaper. They should be used first for heating, but also for electrical production, especially coburned with coal. Using them for alcohol production should be a second choice.

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