By: Hunter Lovins
Published: April 29, 2015
Photo: Joseph DeSantis/Getty Images
Silicon Valley start-ups are proud of their fast-paced culture and being first movers in creating new product categories and markets.
UN climate change summits are the opposite: they sit and discuss the risks of being first movers by transforming our energy systems to reduce emissions and protect our planet, but only the proverbial second mouse gets the cheese. Silicon Valley treasures those who take risks, fail fast and iterate – at this year’s Paris climate change summit we need to adopt more of this approach.
The stance developing nations often take at international climate negotiations is that the rich got rich burning coal and oil, so why should poorer countries sacrifice their economic development for the good of future generations? Better to get rich via fossil fuels now even if we roast later, the logic seems to go, despite UN envoy on climate change Mary Robinson recently making the case for developing countries skipping straight to renewable power.
Meanwhile, coal companies have successfully persuaded some developing countries’ governments to buy into the notion that fossil fuels are essential to tackle energy poverty and US Republicans have long argued the US doesn’t need to tackle its polluters until developing countries cut their own emissions.
But the whole debate rests on a falsehood. The reality is that acting to protect the climate does not impose a financial penalty. Being one of the first countries drastically reducing its emissions is not a disadvantage.
Both developed and developing nations are moving rapidly to renewable energy sources, not because it is morally the right thing to do, but because it’s the route to prosperity. The numbers show that there is a strong first mover advantage.
South Africa is using solar and wind to meet its capacity shortfalls faster and more cheaply than new coal or nuclear facilities could. This already saved the country $69m (£63m) in 2014, created jobs and local industrial capacity. With proposed coal plants on hold because of their soaring costs, South Africa commissioned 79 renewable energy projects, totalling more than 1GW. That is roughly a nuclear power plant-sized chunk of capacity, but a new nuclear plant would take 10 years to build and cost $6 per watt according to one recent estimate.
Coal, long thought of as dirt cheap, comes at $2.30 per watt. In contrast, theChinese will be selling solar panels for $0.42 per watt this year. South Africa’s renewable capacity will hit 5.24GW within a year, up from nothing in 2012, withanother 6.3GW to be commissioned in 2015. No fossil fuel technology can scale this quickly.
Across the Atlantic, Brazil’s commitment to biofuels and hydroelectricity made it independent of imported oil in 2006. Since 2009, Brazil has been adding solar and wind energy, contracting 14GW of wind power at prices below any other option. In 2014, at prices only a bit higher, Brazil also brought on almost 1GW of solar energy. As the severe drought drives Brazil’s electricity prices higher, industries eager to have access to reliable and affordable power are turning to renewables.
The biggest user of energy, China, is also becoming the world’s renewable energy powerhouse. Growing its installed solar capacity by two orders of magnitude within only four years, China went from a capacity of 0.3GW in 2009 to 13GW by 2013 and is now preparing to install 17.8GW of new solar energy for 2015.
China burns a lot of coal, but its Green Horizons program has committed to clean the air in its cities and cut carbon intensity by 40 to 45% from 2005 levels within the next five years. So far in 2015, China’s coal imports already fell by 42%compared to 2014.
As hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world bring renewable electricity to the poorest people on the planet, at prices less than they had been paying for kerosene or other fuels, the renewable power future is inevitable.
Juan Rodriquez’ company, Quetsol, sells solar electric light to thousands of Guatemalan villagers beyond the reach of the electricity grid. He bundles solar panels, light, and phone charging into a mobile money system that connects poor villagers to modern finance, empowering and enriching their lives.
Practical Action, founded by the author of Small is Beautiful, E F Schumacher, has done similar work for years, enabling villagers to preserve food 10 times longer through evaporative cooling, providing irrigation and renewable energy technologies, and locally-developed finance programs.
Similarly, SELCO India, a solar electric light company, is delivering a renewable future today, not as aid, but as a $3m a year business with no government subsidies. With 25 centres across India, SELCO has brought to 35,000 homes and businesses inexpensive lighting, communication technology, water pumping, water heating, refrigeration, computing and power for clinics as well as for entertainment.
With the ability to light even one bulb, villagers can provide light for silk worms which are needed for silk production, looms, and moveable lights that can go from room to room as needed, providing villagers with an income.
Imagine a world in which no family needs to burn smoky dung or wood or oil lamps for light, where wireless digital communications are available to everyone, and where women and young people have illumination to become literate, and businesses have abundant, affordable power.
Imagine societies that not only save money by investing into renewable energy production, but in doing so decrease their political dependency from oil and coal rich neighbours and improve the physical health of their citizens. This is the real first mover advantage for developing countries.