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Something better than coal in your stocking?

Steve Bronstein | Getty Images

Legend says that naughty kids get a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking, so do nice kids get clean energy in theirs, at least metaphorically speaking? It all depends on who plays Santa Claus with your investments or in your nation's capital.

In Pakistan, the government recently announced plans to build a 2200 megawatt nuclear power plant that will cost nearly $10 billion and take six years to construct. No word on whether Pakistanis will demand funds be set aside to deal with a Fukushima- or Chernobyl-style disaster, each of which will end up costing taxpayers in Japan and Ukraine many billions more for generations to come.



By contrast, at the United Nations in New York last week, I attended a meeting of Sustainable Energy for All ("SE4ALL" as it's called) where the discussion centered around delivering clean energy directly to consumers at far less cost and risk. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, and SE4ALL Director Kandeh Yumkella all spoke about the 1.5 billion people who have no access to electricity and are looking for ways to recharge cellphones, run computers, watch TV, and refrigerate food. These people tend to live in communities that are too remote to be connected to a grid or are not served by a utility to buy electricity in the conventional manner. But SE4ALL partners are lining up to invest in ways to power them anyway.

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For example, the African Development Bank just launched the $200 million Africa Renewable Energy Fund, the first private equity fund designed to invest in 5-50 MW renewable energy projects across Sub-Saharan Africa such as wind, solar, small hydro, biomass, geothermal and stranded gas technologies. The bank and its allies (including US taxpayer backed funds) are betting that smaller scale projects using localized, renewable resources that are closer to the consumer will be profitable and can be built much faster than large power plants and massive new grids. The bank is also leading a $100 billion project finance initiative called the Africa 50 Fund to help nations on the continent scale up these initial equity investments.

The World Bank announced a $115 million Utility Scale Renewable Energy Program to support private sector geothermal development. And to learn more about where renewable resources exist, the bank created "ESMAP," a project to help countries find the exploitable wind, solar, biomass and geothermal resources.

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Nor are these investments left to development banks and national governments alone. Petroleum giant Shell is investing in the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and its goal to convert 100 million homes to clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. Bank of America is getting into the act too with a $500 million "Green Bond" product targeted at clean energy development as part of a ten year $50 billion environmental business commitment overall. In Brazil, Itaipu Binacional and Eletrobras kicked off a project to use biogas from agricultural and animal waste to generate electricity in small rural communities of Paraná state and replicate the model in San Jose state in neighboring Uruguay.

So what about that coal in the stocking? Well, a number of strange bedfellows will tell you to leave it there. The "Green Tea Coalition" is a Georgia-based group combining Tea Party conservatives with the Sierra Club to promote clean energy. The group helped pass a bill recently that requires Georgia Power to buy 525 megawatts of solar power by 2016, about 20% from residential and commercial rooftops.

(Read more: Large firms prepared to pay the price on carbon)

Santa's sleigh may visit every home on the planet in one night powered by good wishes alone, but for electricity to light up all of those homes in the near future it will take a lot of distributed energy using local resources with innovative clean technology. As the examples at SE4ALL demonstrate, this approach will light up a lot of lives and put sustainable profits in the stockings of smart investors for many holiday seasons to come.

— By Terry Tamminen

Terry Tamminen is former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors and co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.

Disclosure: Terry Tamminen owns shares of Lighting Science Group.

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