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Guest View: Clean-Energy Shift Is Sharp, Global, and Gaining Speed

Major companies, investors demanding action on renewables, climate change

Clean Energy | February 17, 2015 | By Skip Pruss

About the Author

Skip Pruss is a principal and co-founder of 5 Lakes Energy LLC in Lansing. He also serves on MLUI's Advisory Council. 

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“Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”   ~John F. Kennedy

If further proof is needed that the global transition to clean energy is underway, you only need to look at three things that happened this month.  

Together, they demonstrate dramatically that a phase change—a sharp, complete shift from one state of being to another—is now underway. It is transforming how we generate, procure, and use energy, and America’s corporate and financial sectors are becoming the major drivers. Together they are pushing our country away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy future.

First: Two weeks ago, a coalition of U.S. businesses and non-profit organizations launched the Business Renewables Center (BRC)—a “collaborative platform aimed at accelerating corporate renewable energy procurement.” Businesses interested in sustainability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and lowering energy costs by using more clean energy can tap BRC and its affiliates’ impressive resources.

One of those businesses is among the largest companies in the world—General Motors Corp. Rob Threlkeld, GM’s manager of renewable energy, explained why the automaker likes and supports the idea.

“The collaborative effort of the BRC will make it easier for corporations to enter the renewables market,” he said. “Instead of having hundreds of corporations reinvent the wheel, each member can get immediate access to the cumulative knowledge and wisdom of the industry. Each problem only needs to get solved once.”

The automaker is hardly alone in its interest in obtaining renewable energy. Joined by heavyweights like Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Walmart and many others, GM is a signer of Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles: Increasing Access to Renewable Energy, a recent declaration demanding access to more clean, fixed-price, renewable energy resources.

Second: Also that week, Think Progress reported that a coalition of international business leaders is calling for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2050. The high-profile group includes Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines; Huffington Post Media Group President Arianna Huffington; Unilever CEO Paul Polman; and U.N. Foundation CEO Kathy Calvin. 

The coalition seeks to galvanize support for reaching a comprehensive greenhouse gas reduction agreement in the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris at the end of this year.

This is good news, of course, but it is just the latest in an accelerating trend of international business and political leaders urging action to address climate change.

Early this year, former U.S. Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson, Robert Rubin and George Schultz, joined by Michael Bloomberg and Senator Olympia Snowe, issued a report outlining the “significant and diverse economic impact” of global warming.  The report, Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, is a “call on the American business community to rise to the challenge and lead the way in helping reduce climate risks.”

And third: And in that same week, there was more evidence that investment firms’ moves to cut their fossil fuel investment risks in the face of climate change, rapidly advancing fuel-free energy technologies, and a burgeoning, worldwide social movement are turning into a stampede.

The largest investment fund in the world, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, worth $850 billion, has just divested from 114 fossil fuel companies. Momentum for fossil fuel divestment is growing as asset managers at pension funds and university and college endowments feel increased pressure to divest holdings in fossil fuel-based industries.

In fact, as of February 2014, fossil fuel divesture movements were active in 305 U.S. campuses, representing the fastest growing divestiture movement in history. It is crystal clear that, in addition to a very large number of people, the movement has climate science and a massively accelerating technology sector on its side.

In short, what we are seeing is the business and financial communities mobilizing on three inter-related fronts—demanding access to clean energy, establishing zero-carbon goals, and speaking out boldly on the issue of climate change. 

Demand for clean energy is accelerating. We can expect thousands of companies and organizations to join Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Tesla, BMW, Whole Foods and the National Hockey league in setting zero-carbon energy goals and expressing clear preferences for clean energy resources. 

If there really is a war on coal, it’s being waged by our largest, coolest and most admired corporations.

Put another way, very few in business and industry are demanding greater access to fossil fuels. Quite the opposite.

And with high-penetration renewable energy scenarios being validated by power transmission grids around the world, the future trends in energy are clear.  

The energy phase change is at hand.

Skip Pruss is a principal in 5 Lakes Energy, a Michigan-based clean energy consulting firm, as well as a member of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s advisory board. This essay is used by permission, and is also available on the firm’s we

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