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George W. Bush, a green president? Solar mogul and clean-tech investor Jigar Shah thinks so

Jigar Shaw, a partner at the clean-tech investment fund Inerjys.

Stephen Voss

Jigar Shah has major green cred. He founded California-based SunEdison, now the world's biggest solar-power services company. He was the first CEO of the Carbon War Room, Richard Branson's climate-change-fighting organization. These days, he's a D.C.-based partner at Inerjys, a $1-billion clean-tech fund. His goal: nothing less than to save humanity from itself–and make money doing it.

Why haven't we moved further on clean technology when all signs point to the fact that we've got to act now?
Well, I think it's important to bracket your comments with the numbers. Last year, more money went into clean-tech deployment of electricity than into fossil-fuel deployment, and that's been going on for the last two years. So if the Obama administration were to wake up tom orrow and say, "We're going to go to war against oil and we are going to implement the T. Boone Pickens plan [to have vehicles run on natural gas], and we are going to focus only on heavy trucks, and by 2016 we're going to switch almost every heavy truck in the country to natural gas," oil prices would tank by $10 a barrel on the announcement. And if they actually succeeded, oil prices would be down to $60 a barrel.

So why doesn't Obama do that?
Well, he's afraid of doing that because of geopolitical concerns. Saudi Arabia, Iran–all these countries have increased their spending to the point where if oil is $60 a barrel, they'll lose money. You and I might want to stick it to the man, but it may not be that great for stability around the world. The second problem is that he's not confident in our solution path.

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Do we have to get to a point where we have no choice?
That's where we are today. In the United States, something like 3 per cent of our federal budget was spent on adaptation to and fixing climate change disasters last year, with Hurricane Sandy and other things. We could have spent that money on prevention. It's not like the economics aren't clear. The problem is that no politician gets elected by being an expert in infrastructure. And politicians, you can't educate them. I'm not suggesting that they're dumb. President Obama is smart, and so is Bill Clinton. But let's remember that Bill Clinton didn't do shit when he was president. He talks a good game now, but he didn't lead. Al Gore could have led when he was vice-president. He didn't lead.

The people who did lead were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and they don't get enough credit for it. They actually wrote a plan in 2001 that included solar and wind, and then in 2005 they passed the tax credit act that actually spurred wind and solar. Last year, the U.S. did 13,400 megawatts of wind, which is more than China did.

So cast us out 10 years.
In 10 years, 100 per cent of all new capacity additions to electricity globally will come from zero-emission sources. We will not build any more bad stuff–it will be great stuff. Oil will still exist for the next 40, 50, 80 years, but you will see a concerted effort to offset oil within 10 years. And the reason for that is that it's bankrupting us. In the U.S. today, we spend over $500-billion more for fuel than we did in 1999. This extra cost is an enormous headwind on our economy.

So, where will we be 20 or 25 years from now?
I think it's a foregone conclusion that we're going to blow past two degrees of warming, no matter how fast we implement these solutions. The race will be to stay below three degrees. And I think what'll happen in 25 years is that we will know whether three degrees is 10 times less stable than two degrees, or if three degrees is only two times less stable. And we're going to be focused entirely on adaptation and how we actually deal with the impacts of raping and pillaging our ecosystem. There's a whole bunch of countries that are going to go fallow and have people starve to death. There's going to be a whole bunch of countries that are going to have enormous shifts in the way their hydrology works, such that some places will get rain and some won't. We're going to literally have to change the way our economy works. It's scary, but that's the world we chose to live in.

Regardless of what we do.
Yup. One of the things I would say to you is that everything we install 10 years from now has already been invented. It's not possible to do infrastructure at trillion-dollar scale unless the technology has had a minimum of 10 years of deployment experience. Everything is already in existence and is being piloted now.

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