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Lighting the Way Forward with Renewable Energy

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment

By Jamie Dean

Now is an amazing chapter in the story of renewable energy, and I’m optimistic about its future. The dominant story – if we weed through the fossil fuel industry rhetoric - is that renewable energy is becoming cheaper and more efficient. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, since 2007, the cost of installing an average-sized rooftop solar system has nearly halved. In just 10 years, wind turbines have doubled in efficiency. Conversely, over the long-term, fossil fuels can only go up in price as resources diminish and demand increases (as the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report indicates). And while we can continue our ever-more-harmful strategies to suck every last drop of oil and gas from the earth (while denying the huge environmental impacts), this can only go on for so long. The story of our energy system is at a crossroads. There are two paths forward – one paved with fossil fuels, and the other illuminated by renewable energy.

Enter The 11th Hour Project’s OpenIDEO Challenge, launched in November. At the heart of the challenge is the question, “How can communities lead the rapid transition to renewable energy?” The 11th Hour Project, part of The Schmidt Family Foundation, aims to transition to 100 percent renewable energy and sees individuals and communities as essential to this transition. The challenge’s open innovation platform invites participation from individuals outside The 11th Hour network, which leads to a greater diversity of ideas and solutions.

Action on the policy front has been slow. In the U.S., we’ve seen some significant policies like state Renewable Portfolio Standards, which mandate a certain percentage of renewable energy be purchased within a timeframe and exist in 29 states plus DC and Puerto Rico (California’s is 33 percent by 2020). While policy change is a critical component for change, we need to balance it with a strong focus on implementing the technologies that work today and are decreasing in price every day. The Solutions Project, a group of top scientists, business leaders, and cultural influencers, has developed 50 state plans that demonstrate how the U.S. gets to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. These validate the technical feasibility of renewable energy, and our OpenIDEO Challenge is about reaching this potential through building solutions from the ground up.

And we see these solutions in the 230+ research posts from around the world, we have received in the first month of the challenge. Here are a few of my favorites: Pay-As-You-Go Solar Power, which turns solar into a viable option for anyone who could not previously afford the high upfront cost; Small Wind!, which focuses on small-scale wind turbines, making wind a more viable distributed energy resource; and Printable Solar Cells, which can someday make solar more affordable and accessible. We are excited to see the community build these research posts into new ideas and projects.

Another important aspect of this challenge, and critical to 11th Hour’s work, is that renewable energy solutions be made more accessible to a broader swath of the population. Renewable energy is no longer an “elite” solution. There are excellent examples of community-owned solar systems across the U.S., which enable non-homeowners to access solar power, including these examples from Colorado, Michigan, and Vermont. Mosaic created the first peer-to-peer lending platform for solar energy, which allows for affordable loans, investment opportunities, and engagement by thousands of individuals. SunFunder, which focuses in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, connects investors to solar projects that improve the lives of low-income communities.

And lastly, the Charge Ahead campaign aims to place one million electric vehicles on California’s roads over the next ten years and ensure that all Californians benefit from cleaner air. While electric vehicles are not a renewable energy per se, they are critical to getting us to our climate goals by 2050. Nationwide, EVs charged from the electricity grid produce lower global warming emissions than the average compact gasoline-powered vehicle even when the electricity is produced primarily from coal. Over time, as we integrate more renewable energy onto the grid and into households, electric vehicles become an even better and cleaner option.

I want to end with a few more powerful statistics. All of the energy stored in the Earth's reserves of coal, oil and natural gas is matched by just 20 days of sunshine. Onshore wind could supply more than 40 times the current worldwide consumption of electricity. And finally, in early 2014, a solar installation in the U.S. was completed every four minutes according to the Solar Market Insight Report for Q1. If the forecast is accurate, the rate in 2014 will be one solar installation every 2.4 minutes.

It is time to choose renewable solutions first. In promoting renewable energy, we can end our reliance on fossil fuels while creating new economic opportunities in a cleaner, safer and healthier world. All great movements in our history were started by people, by committed individuals and groups who saw a better world just over the horizon. Whether you’re in the Windy City or the Sunshine state, or somewhere not yet named for the awesome power of renewables, there are many opportunities for your leadership. Our Challenge is but one of them.

Jamie Dean is Program Director for The 11th Hour Project, a program of The Schmidt Family Foundation, and directs the Foundation’s program in renewable energy and climate. She also sits on the Board of Directors for Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (Bridge to Community Health), an NGO based in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Solar Image credit - Flickr/Abbie Trayler-Smith