Behind Juan Tabo Boulevard, Albuquerque, the promise of a solar future: Sandia's solar tower, its mirrors reflecting the New Mexico sunlight. Photo: Randy Montoya / Sandia Labs via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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The $7 trillion solar tsunami in our midst
Assaad W Razzouk
31st July 2015
Never mind government inaction (or worse) on climate change, writes Assaad W Razzouk. Solar power costs just keep on falling, and it's already providing the lowest cost electricity across much of the world. With $7 trillion of investment piling into the sector, the momentum is now unstoppable.
Up to $7 trillion through 2030 is available to back renewable energy projects, with possibly up to half flowing into emerging markets. That's the kind of climate action that actually produces results.
While world leaders have been talking a lot but doing little in the run-up to the UN climate conference in December, the private sector has been forcefully tackling climate change.
A solar tsunami is sweeping across the globe and politicians would do well to recognise its importance and help it along.
Falling costs and financial market innovations are making solar the preferred power option in many countries - and the tsunami is only getting started.
In many countries endowed with sun, the cost of solar power generation is already below 5 cents per kilowatt - a level competitive with any power generation source, including coal and gas. In a leading solar country like Germany, costs have declined with as much as 40% over the last three years.
And that's before battery storage systems - which will transform the utility of solar power systems by storing the electricity for use when the sun's not shining - become ubiquitous and cheap, as they appear set to do over the next three to five years.
Globally, solar costs are decreasing, and will continue to, irrespective of conditions in any particular country. Since 2008, the price of solar photovoltaic (panels) has fallen by a record 80% and is expected to continue even without any technological breakthroughs.
Increased adoption rates also mean that most scenarios out there fundamentally underestimate how fast clean energy can - and will - take over our energy systems. Last year's record amount of solar power added to the world's grids means that the cumulative capacity now is one hundred times higher than it was in 2000. For the first time ever, Europe is even producing more power from renewables than from nuclear.
The solar tsunami is rolling on unstoppably because of falling costs, helped along by new financial instruments and backed by potentially trillions of dollars.
Trillions of dollars in renewable financing
Financial innovation is playing a critical role in driving the solar tsunami forward. New financial instruments include green bonds and publicly-listed companies that invest in renewable energy assets with a stable and growing cash flow, which is distributed as dividends to shareholders. These help ensure that the ongoing clean energy revolution will be backed by massive financial strength.
Because investors are willing to pay a premium for the predictable and growing dividend that the new financial instruments provide, renewables are acquire a cost of capital previously only available to fossil fuel projects - allowing the industry to operate on a par with Big Oil and Big Gas at least in terms of its cost of money. More than $40 billion has already been mobilized for renewables projects this year and we are on course to reach $100 billion by the end of the year.
Up to $7 trillion (yes, trillion) in capital through 2030 is available to back renewable energy projects, with possibly up to half flowing into emerging markets. That's the kind of climate action that actually produces results.
Forcefully backing the private sector's efforts in building out dominant clean energy systems worldwide - and innovating to do more, faster - is our best bet to counter the coming climate change catastrophe. This is also where governments should focus their efforts.
What governments should do
Given the solar tsunami, what should governments aim for at the UN Climate Talks in Paris at the end of this year?
We can't stop them doing what they do: Cobbling together a sort of agreement to sort of set emission reduction targets for countries that sort of would like to participate. But to move the needle, they need to acknowledge and back the on-going solar (and clean energy) tsunami.
First, this means supporting capital markets innovations by directing multi-lateral institutions (such the International Finance Corporation, the Asian Development Bank and others), development banks (such the U.S.'s Overseas Private Investment Corporation or Germany's KfW) and other similar entities to back emerging new financial instruments as a priority; and to roll-out similar instruments in developing countries such as India, China and Brazil.
Second, they should continue to push for carbon pricing to be introduced in as many countries as possible, while working towards the removal of all fossil fuel subsidies.
Astoundingly, there continues to be constant claims that clean energy is "too expensive", conveniently forgetting that society subsidizes fossil fuels to the extent of $5.3 trillion each year: dirty energy only seems cheap if you don't account for all the destruction it causes.
Third, they should cut the double-talk. The G7, the G20 and the OECD continue to make clear commitments to fight climate change while sending billions of dollars to support fossil fuels use each year.
This export support, aid and general finance extended towards fossil fuels perpetuates their use, exacerbates climate change and encourages the financial markets to avoid putting a risk premium on the cost of capital of oil, gas and coal companies commensurate with the true cost of their activities to human health, the environment and society.
Solar roaring ahead
Thanks to falling costs and financial innovations, the solar tsunami will roar ahead today and over the coming years with or without government support.
But politicians can help the speed at which the tsunami advances by supporting capital market innovations on a global level and optimising market conditions by introducing carbon pricing, cutting fossil fuel subsidies and re-directing aid from fossil fuel projects to renewables.
This will not only help the climate, but also benefit the politicians themselves. Only by recognising the true extent of the private sector's solar tsunami will governments become relevant again in the fight against climate change. Regrettably, they aren't today.
Assaad Razzouk is the CEO and co-founder of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, a clean energy company based in Singapore, and an expert in climate and clean energy policy and markets. Twitter: @AssaadRazzouk
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