Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

RP Siegel headshot

Off-the-Shelf Technology Can Halt Climate Change Now

By RP Siegel
wind energy

In a recent conversation with Novozymes CEO Peder Holk Nielsen, we asked: If he had a few minutes alone with one of the delegates at COP21 in Paris, what would his elevator pitch be? His response, without hesitation, was that we already have most of the technology we need.

Referring to the McKenzie Abatement Curve, which examines the cost of various carbon abatement measures, he said: “Actually two-thirds of those technologies are available. Of those, one-third has been shown to be economically advantageous, while another third is roughly neutral. Then there is one-third where it’s complicated, and expensive, which means, we really don’t understand how to do it yet.”

What was clear to Nielsen that many people do not yet realize is how many tools we now have for dealing with carbon emissions in a cost-effective manner. Many of them are already in widespread use with costs continuously dropping as they achieve scale and continue to be refined. Many others are highly promising and are at various stages of development. Let’s take a moment to consider some of these.

Renewable Energy World recently ran a story with a similar theme, naming five key technologies that “would go a long way in supporting implementation of that agreement,” if indeed an agreement is reached. They included:

  • Onshore wind: A total of 369.6 gigawatts of wind was installed as of the end of 2014. That includes enough wind power in China to power 110 million homes. In 2014 alone, wind power avoided 608 million tons of CO2.

  • Offshore wind: A more recent development, offshore has been deployed in Europe since 1991 and is now beginning to find application in the U.S. Given the large proportion of people living in coastal areas, there is a lot of potential. Recent developments in floating platforms in Japan support very large turbine sizes, which could ultimately reduce cost. The U.K. is becoming a major player as well.

  • Biofuel is mostly being used to produce a supplemental vehicle fuel, but new processes based on the Organic Rankine cycle, using organic fluids with lower boiling points than water, could help improve the electricity output of combined heat and power plants that run on biomass.

  • Concentrated solar power: Improved efficiency is being achieved through cooling measures and integration with combined-cycle thermal power plant technology originally developed for fossil fuel generation. Highly efficient Stirling engines are also being developed for this purpose.

  • Energy storage: The report mentions adiabatic compressed air energy storage (CAEE), which includes heat recovery, though many other viable storage solutions are now available including a wide variety of batteries -- purpose-built for various applications ranging from cell phones and electric cars, to home energy storage (where lithium-ion still rules), to utility-scale power storage using flow batteries.

This list was compiled by the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (GSEP), a group of executives from “the world’s leading electricity companies,” which explains the fact that rooftop photovoltaic technology, which is among the most significant developments in the energy picture, is absent from the list.

We think solar PV should be added. While solar PV is still catching up with wind, it is gaining rapidly. There is now more than 20 GW worth of solar electricity installed in the U.S., a number that is expected to double in the next two years. The U.S. produced a total of 4 million GW of power in 2014 -- so renewables need to be ramped up substantially, but it is now cost effective to do so.

Worldwide solar PV installations have reached 177 GW, a tenfold increase since 2008. This growth should continue as Asia, Africa and the Middle East all are beginning to ramp up in earnest. Not only have costs come down, but efficiency also keeps improving -- and a number of innovative financing options now make it possible for people to install solar on their roofs with no money down. Another important advance is the advent of community solar, which allows inner-city residents, even renters, and those whose rooftops are shaded, in poor condition, or face the wrong way, to purchase solar power from an installation in their neighborhood. The installations are often public-private partnerships that could utilize vacant lots or other available land.

Without getting into things that are still in the R&D phase, the list of technologies that are available is truly breathtaking. On the demand side, we see things ranging from higher efficiency devices including lighting, appliances, computers and just about everything with a plug, smart buildings, boosted by cutting-edge design tools, smart cities using the Internet of Things (IoT), smart-metering, and lots of apps designed to track and help you save energy. Demand-management programs, including energy storage as well as deployment of fuel cells), are designed to flatten out peaks which saves cost and improves the efficiency of the grid. These technologies will reduce the total volume of electricity we need without reducing performance.

While not exactly a technology, the restoration and preservation of forests is another key factor in the climate equation. What is it that forests do? Trees pull carbon out of the air and store it in their trunks and branches. Can that be done artificially? Attempts at utility-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) attached to coal plants have proven quite expensive, though there is at least one working example. Meanwhile, other, more modest methods are emerging.

Bayer, for example, is now using recovered CO2 as a feedstock in its production of polyurethane for mattresses. A Swiss company called Climeworks has developed a system for pulling CO2 out of the air, to be used commercially for such things as boosting plant growth in greenhouses. Other advances in agriculture, such as vertical farms, can locate food supplies closer to where people live, reducing transportation-related emissions. Speaking of transportation, we have everything from car-sharing, to various forms of e-bikes, to re-engineering of cities to enhance bike-ability, walkability and transit options, to EV charging stations, to apps that quickly find you a parking spot thereby saving gas.

On the supply side: Commercial wind turbines up to as much as 7 megawatts are now being deployed. Not only has their size increased, but their efficiency and capacity factor have as well. Capacity factor is the percentage of the time that a wind turbine actually produces the amount of power it’s rated for. While that used to be around 25 percent, improvements in design have increased it to 50 percent, which is the “new normal.”

Various types of utility-scale solar projects, from thermal to photovoltaic, are also being installed. That sector grew by 38 percent last year. Meanwhile, rooftop residential solar grew by 51 percent driven by the combination of factors noted above.

Microgrids can reduce demand and cost, and by tailoring to the specific needs of its subscribers, be more efficient as well. Putting solar panels in water to help cool them and provide more area is another idea that’s catching on. Passive tracking for solar panels can improve output by up to 30 percent without consuming additional power.

The fact is: Both wind and solar are already less expensive than coal or gas in Europe, on a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) basis. This is not true everywhere, but it will be as solar and wind prices continue to fall. Geothermal systems are also growing with about 13 GW currently installed. That is expected to grow to 17.6 GW by 2020. A water injection process called EGS is currently being evaluated which could reduce costs and increase demand.

Meanwhile, hydropower, the first renewable, exceeded 1,000 GW in 2013 and continues to grow at 3 percent per year. Despite the lessons of Fukushima, there is a significant groundswell of support for the so-called “meltdown-proof” molten salt reactors. A recent report highlights a number of active efforts across the globe with a prototype from the Shanghai Institute in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Lab expected in the next few years.

Finally, the 2015 U.N. Climate Solutions Award winners were just announced. Among these are:

  •      Solvatten Solar Safe Water Heater, Kenya: Reducing emissions while securing access to safe drinking water

  •      Fostering Cleaner Production, Colombia: Reducing emissions in manufacturing

  •      Harvesting Geothermal Energy, El Salvador: Generating income with geothermal waste-heat

  •      Planting Trees to Save the Mangrove, Guinea: Establishing women-led groups that protect forests and generate income

  •      SELF’s Solar Market Gardens, Benin: Empowering women farmers through solar drip irrigation

  •      Azuri PayGo Energy, Africa: Innovating pay-as-you-go energy systems for rural homes

  •      Deforestation-free Cocoa, Peru: Using a carbon-asset-backed loan to protect forests and produce cocoa

  •      Microsoft Global Carbon Fee, Global: Transforming corporate culture by putting a price on carbon

  •      ChargePoint Electric Vehicle Charging Corridors, U.S.: Building a network of electric vehicle express charging stations

  •      Mobisol Smart Solar Homes, Rwanda and Tanzania: Powering homes with solar energy

These are just the tip of the iceberg. Any comprehensive list of available tools to combat climate change would fill a book.

The point that the delegates need to understand is this: The technology is not the problem. A multitude of technologies are already here, and many more are on their way. What is needed now is the commitment to use them and to quickly make the transition to clean energy, which will be painful for some, knowing that all of us, including generations to come, will be better off when we do.

Image credit: Flickr/Steve p2008

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


Read more stories by RP Siegel