At the UN Climate Summit in New York last month, world leaders were given a clear message: whilst climate change presents a grave threat, we have solutions available today that are affordable, scalable, and can help economic growth rather than hinder it.
One of the best solutions we have available is solar energy. The potential of solar is vast - it's a well-known fact that in one hour, enough sunlight strikes the earth to provide the world's energy needs for a whole year. Even Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, said back in 1931, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
The reason we have had to wait so long is that - until now - solar energy has simply been too expensive to compete with fossil fuels. In the last quarter of a century however, everything has changed; the cost of solar electricity has fallen a hundred fold since the 1970s and in many countries, including the UK, it is now significantly cheaper than buying from the grid. Today, producing solar electricity is cheaper than both offshore wind and nuclear energy and is fast dropping to match the cost of electricity generated from burning fossil fuels. Once you take into account the negative effects of climate change, solar is looking more and more like our most sensible option. This dramatic shift has come from a powerful combination of technological innovation and mass production capabilities, comparable to the development of the car industry in the first half of the twentieth century or the computing industry in the last fifty years.
Today, installing solar energy is one of the best ways to make a positive impact on the environment, as well as one of the best financial investments around. As the economic case for renewable energy becomes clear, a trend is emerging; big companies are moving faster than governments to embrace renewable energy. At the Climate Summit in New York, the business community made noticeably more ambitious commitments than politicians. The Climate Group, a non-profit organisation, announced a project called RE100, a campaign to encourage 100 of the world's largest firms to commit to generating 100% of their energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 - far earlier than any country has ever considered achieving. So far 13 major corporations have signed up to the plan, all of whom cite financial returns and energy security as key factors in making the commitment. In the residential solar market, research shows that it's simply lack of awareness, rather than cost, that's preventing more homes from going solar - something that should naturally improve as the market grows and solar panels become more accessible through mainstream retailers.
Being able to produce your own energy from solar is part of this new shift. In our current status quo, energy is produced centrally by big companies and sold to consumers, but when solar panels are installed on homes, businesses, farms, schools or hospitals, those buildings are turned into small power stations generating clean energy for themselves and the local community. Not only will these new mini power stations make money for their owners, but their installation and operation will support an entire industry, providing jobs and driving economic growth. The dawn of a new democratic era of energy production is closer than you may think.