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New Year's Resolution: Renewable Energy

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Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director since 2010, is a nationally recognized writer, speaker, and commentator on energy and environmental issues. Brune's book, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal (2010), offers a vision for a true clean-energy future.

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Welcome to 2015, a year when scientists have documented the hottest global temperatures since record keeping began, analysts have recorded the most solar industry jobs since record keeping began, and Congress has begun its assault on clean air, clean water, and clean energy -- perhaps the most misguided policy-making initiative since -- well, you get the point.

Given the dysfunction and denialism rampant in Congress and in many statehouses, why do I think this year will actually be a great one for clean-energy solutions and climate action? Because a revolution is already underway that will have a far greater impact than Congress's ham-handed pandering to fossil-fuel billionaires. Three things are driving this change.

Recognition of the urgency of global climate action.

Outside of political posturing, polls consistently show that a solid majority of Americans recognize the threat of climate disruption and support action to do something about it. That has already emboldened President Obama, and it also gives the U.S. added climate credibility internationally. Add to that the recent agreement between China and the U.S. to work together on cutting emissions, and prospects for real progress at the U.N Climate Summit in Paris at the end of this year are looking a lot better than they did just five years ago in Copenhagen. Around the world, there's recognition that we can't afford more delays. Fortunately, we have an ace in the hole....

The inexorable economics of clean energy.

Never underestimate the power of economic opportunity as a change agent. Global investment in clean energy was up 16 percent last year. Fossil fuel prices are notoriously volatile (witness the sudden meltdown of oil prices that just wiped out more than $200 billion in market valuation among the S&P 500's 10 largest oil and natural gas companies), but renewable energy is relentlessly getting cheaper and more efficient everywhere. In many places, both here and around the world, it's already the least expensive way to generate electricity.

That's a big reason why -- leaving aside Capitol Hill -- the appeal of renewable energy is already crossing party lines. Many of the states with the most renewable energy resources also happen to be red states. Wind power is booming in Texas and the Midwest. Barry Goldwater, Jr., is lobbying against big utilities that want to curb solar power in Arizona, while Tea Party activists are doing the same in Georgia and Florida. Renewable energy has so many advantages (starting with the cost of the fuel) and so much technological momentum that stopping it will be impossible. The most that even Congress can hope to do is slow the pace. Which brings us to what may be the most important factor of all.

The power of communities (and the people who live in them).

Here's where the revolution is really happening -- thanks to both online and offline organizing. In just the past few months, we've seen successful local fracking bans in Ohio, California, and Texas -- not to mention the entire state of New York. These victories weren't won with massive spending campaigns but through smart organizing both on-the-ground and online. Fossil-fuel corporations are ill equipped for community organizing -- witness Chevron's recent disastrous free-spending tactics as it attempted to install its own slate of candidates in the refinery town of Richmond, CA. During the coming year, we will win our biggest battles for clean energy state by state, county by county, and town by town. And well-organized, passionate people like you and me will make it happen.

Communities are also driving another powerful change agent: innovation. This is another real Achilles' heel for the fossil fuel industry. Let's face it: Perhaps the most novel thing fossil fuel companies have come up with in the past four decades is man-made earthquakes from fracking! Most of the rest of the country, on the other hand, is both motivated and inspired to develop new ways to meet our energy needs.

One cool example of tapping this resource is the OpenIDEO Renewable Energy Challenge, which launched online last November (and is backed by the 11th Hour Project). The idea is to tap the creativity of a diverse community of thinkers to answer the question "How can communities lead the rapid transition to renewable energy?" The goal is to generate ideas that are both local and actionable. Some of the ideas already suggested involve applying existing technology, while others posit entirely new inventions. Still others tackle the challenge of how to change human and societal behaviors. The most promising ideas will actually get funding to move forward, so if you've been sitting on one of your own, be sure to submit it by the January 25 deadline.

I love the idea that technology is not only making it possible for people to organize against threats to their communities but also enabling them to develop solutions that will someday eliminate those threats completely.

In his inaugural address last week, Governor Jerry Brown proposed that California can achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. "The challenge," he said, "is to build for the future, not steal from it." With Congress doing its best to flush our future down a dirty pipeline, it's never been more important to show that we have both the will and the means to build something better.

This year, the best resolution anyone can make is to join the revolution. And if you're one of the millions who already are part of the clean energy and climate movement, now's the time to kick it up a notch. The challenges are big, but we've never had better tools with which to build, to organize, and to make a difference. And don't forget: The wind (and sun) are at our backs. Let's counter Congress's dirty-fuel resolutions with the clean-energy revolution of 2015.

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