"We Can Do Big Things Right Now": Why Green Initiatives Don't Need To Wait

Charles Williams

We are more advanced in energy-saving technology than we think—the problem is political.

We need research and development "miracles," Bill Gates urged before the Paris climate summit last December. Jigar Shah, whose financial innovations made solar panels affordable to millions of Americans, begs to differ. Powerful clean-energy technologies already exist, Shah told the Microsoft mogul in an open letter; what’s actually needed is to deploy them at maximum speed and scale. We don’t have to wait. “We can do big things right now,” Shah argued. 

Shah, who founded SunEdison in 2003, pioneered a pay-as-you-go model for financing rooftop panels that sparked stratospheric growth for the solar industry. This model unlocked a huge market of eager customers. Billions of dollars in tax incentives in President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package further boosted solar’s appeal. The resulting increase in consumer demand brought forth larger production runs that have slashed panels’ per-unit costs by 70 percent since 2009. No wonder solar will be the leading source of new electricity in the U.S. this year, as the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects. (SunEdison will miss the party; poor management decisions made after Shah left led to bankruptcy.)

Humanity must rapidly reduce its use of fossil fuels and abandon them entirely by 2050 to avoid a climate catastrophe, scientists say. That is an ambitious goal. But studies show that embracing “advanced energy” technologies—like solar, wind, energy-efficient appliances, and battery storage—can achieve it. 

It’s irrational, even suicidal, but governments worldwide now spend $5.3 trillion a year subsidizing the fossil fuels that are overheating our planet. Shift those trillions instead to climate-friendly alternatives, and clean energy would expand even faster and employ more people than it does today. Put a price on carbon, charging polluters for damaging our shared environment, and the pace would further accelerate. 

We have the tools, and we know how to deploy them. But reform requires one more element: political commitment.