How do we get to 100% clean energy? I believe the fastest way is to allow more people to participate in building the clean energy economy.
Until recently, there were good reasons why almost all of us were energy consumers, rather than energy producers. We didn’t have good alternatives to fossil fuels and so we were hamstrung: concerned about the environment, our communities, and our children’s future, but able to do little more than change our light bulbs. We had little choice but to rely on a system in which only the biggest players—those who could blow the top of a mountain or finance a billion dollar power plant—could profit from the world’s biggest industry.
The last few decades, though, have upended the game. In 35 years, the cost of solar energy has gone from $75 a watt to around .75 cents a watt and Citigroup recently projected .25 cents per watt solar by 2020. Electricity from wind turbines can now beat residential electricity prices in most countries around the globe. Combine these advances with developments in information technology, battery storage, energy efficiency, electric cars, and other technologies like geothermal and hydro, and it becomes clear that we are living in a new world.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are about to host a conference called Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy. I think it’s safe to say that most of the speakers at the conference would never have guessed they’d be talking about 100% renewable energy in 2013.
The whole drift of this transition in our energy system is towards decentralization, flexibility, and resilience. New technologies are doing to energy what the Internet did to telecommunications. Part of the reason wind and solar have spread faster than anyone would have expected is because they are so easy for communities, small businesses, and everyday people to finance and create.
One sunny day last summer, Germany set a world record by meeting half of its noonday electricity needs—the energy equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants running at full capacity—with solar. This is an amazing accomplishment, but more amazing is the fact that major utilities own only 6% of Germany’s clean energy. Individuals and farmers own 51%.
We can do the same thing here in the U.S. In fact, there is no reason we can’t do more. We have more clean energy resources and—more important—a set of ideals that has always been about self-sufficiency and freedom from powerful interests.
We have much of the technology we need to create abundant clean energy for and by the people. It’s time to start breaking down the barriers that keep people from participating. We need to change the laws that prevent communities and individuals from creating their own energy projects, or that make it difficult for them to access government incentive programs. We need to create and scale businesses that make it possible for people to invest in, own, share, lease, and, above all, prosper from clean energy.
I believe this is the greatest opportunity of our time. Each person with access to the clean energy economy creates not only electrical power, but also political power. Each rooftop solar power plant produces not only 2 kw of clean electricity, but also two clean energy supporting American voters.
How do we get to 100% clean energy? I believe the fastest way is to do what we do best: democratize.