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The Death of “Alternative Energy”

Fifteen years ago, when I joined the early ranks of clean energy entrepreneurs, we were nearly dead in the water on climate. Oil was $15 per barrel, Al Gore’s groundbreaking movie An Inconvenient Truth hadn’t come out, and a solar panel was something that powered a calculator.

In the year 2005, I went to my first “Alternative Energy Conference” in Aspen, Colorado. I was asked to speak at the event, and hadn’t paid much attention to the agenda. Upon arrival I found the audience consisted of coal, oil and gas executives.

It turns out that “alternatives” in the energy space in 2005 actually meant new methods for extracting old fossil fuels: tar sands, “clean coal,” and a new thing called fracking. This, according to all of the other speakers, was the future.

I didn’t walk away optimistic about our coming transition. Forecasters weren’t wearing their rose-colored glasses either.

What a Difference a Decade Makes

In the first quarter of 2017, renewable energy accounted for 20% of all U.S. electricity while fracking has gone mainstream. On the flip side, six publicly traded coal companies declared bankruptcy from April 2015–2016 while coal production had its steepest annual decline since 1958. And after much hype, the number of operational clean coal power plants in the U.S. remains firmly stuck at…zero.

A coal plant built today would not be competitive with a combination of wind and solar in virtually any location in the country. And nowhere would it be competitive with natural gas.

In the end, these fossil sources, particularly coal, look increasingly like the new “alternative energy sources,” since there’s simply no economic justification for them.

The speed of this transformation may surprise some readers. That’s understandable. For years, traditional energy analysts have completely misforecast the transformation.

Why were these analysts so wrong? What drove this profound shift with such speed? This did not happen because of Paris. This didn’t even happen because of Kyoto before it. It didn’t happen because of something Trump did or undid. It didn’t even happen because of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

The Real Change Agents of the Energy Transformation

Three drivers of change set us on this course. It started first with the growing chorus of concerned citizens, scientists, and activists coming together to seek out solutions — often at a local level. This was catalyzed by inflection points like An Inconvenient Truth, but the sources of inspiration were everywhere as the evidence of change mounted. Second, local and state leaders in the U.S. started to listen. Across party lines, real leadership showed up to pass Renewable Portfolio Standards, enhanced automotive standards, and air quality improvement plans. Third, in reaction to the first two, businesses started playing an increasingly important role.

Broadly speaking, businesses have played two key roles in cementing our direction on climate. First, large companies have finally started to internalize the will of their customers. Five out of the top six most valuable public companies in the world are U.S.-based technology companies: Google (Alphabet), Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. They are also the source of the greatest amount of electricity demand growth in world. All of them have now committed to 100% clean energy in the near future — Google is there today. The others behind them will follow suit.

Leading companies have committed to 100% clean energy to save money, show leadership, and meet the growing cries from their customers and employees to be part of the solution. The magnitude of this commitment cannot be overstated. These companies have a combined market capitalization of nearly $2.3 trillion — exceeding the size of nearly every economy that signed the Paris accord.

The second way business has played a key role is innovation and entrepreneurialism. The impact of buying power is the domain of the large multinationals. The impact of innovation is the domain of startups. From SunPower and First Solar to Tesla and Nest, we have continually seen the unbounded creativity of startups and founders prove the impossible. And we’re just getting warmed up. Electric buses, large-scale energy storage, autonomous cars, electric planes, and the myriad software solutions to help make our energy more efficient and effective are launching daily.

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