How to Make Every Day, Earth Day

One of the small joys of annual celebration days is the comforting predictability of the pledges.

As surely as the robins sing in spring, a speaker will declare, "We should treat every day as Mother's Day." Or Father's Day. Or Grandparent's Day. And so it goes.

Yet some designated days do, indeed, deserve to be timeless and universal in practical ways, across days and months, across nations and regions. Earth Day is one.

The world community took a major and wise step in that direction this past year, when an unprecedented number of nations joined together in New York to endorse a set of goals for a world that can be both prosperous and environmentally sustainable, and again in Paris to commit themselves to addressing climate change.

The notable factor in both these occasions is that so much time was devoted to the question of how to pay for what everyone endeavors to achieve. Tangible progress was made.

Henceforth, every day will be Earth Day not because we say so once a year, but because we invest in making it so year-round.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. government's development finance institution, has been leaning in and making climate-smart investment a priority.

Our mission is to mobilize private capital--financing, political risk insurance and support for private equity funds--to help solve critical development challenges while fostering environmental sustainability.

Several years ago, our team took a hard look at the long-term trends in the global economy: the steady growth of population; the toll on natural resources created by the consumption patterns of middle-income families with rising incomes; and the worsening threat of climate change. OPIC resolved to heavily emphasize investments that address such challenges.

The results have far exceeded our expectations.

Since 2010, our total portfolio has grown by roughly 60 percent. However, the portion of our portfolio in renewable energy investments has grown by 10-fold. For the past several years, OPIC has committed about $1 billion per year across a diverse array of renewable energy projects, from grid-connected solar and off-grid solar to wind energy and geothermal.

While those numbers may imply the wind was at our backs, that was far from the case. Our team has faced considerable difficulties, and we have accumulated lessons along the way.

We have learned that breakthroughs in the efficiency of renewable energy technology do not alone guarantee market success in the developing world. Local market conditions, such as the level of subsidies for fossil-fueled competing technologies such as diesel generators, can often stand in the way of new clean energy technology.

We have learned that, by necessity, the financial structure of a deal in an emerging market often looks markedly different than a deal in an advanced economy. The number of off-takers is often different. The degree of credit support from the government is often markedly different.

We have learned that governments in developing nations, even when they are enthusiastic about clean energy, often lack the investment climate--whether in terms of laws and regulations, or in terms of administrative expertise--to help craft and execute "bankable" clean energy investments.

We have learned that some projects, on paper at least, hold amazing promise to expand energy accessibility and reduce carbon intensity. Yet they lack comparatively small amounts of up-front grant capital to help with business plans, regulatory analysis, site preparation or other early building blocks.

Yet OPIC and many development finance organizations have found ways to support ever more clean energy projects. In a short period of time, a shift few would have predicted back in 2010 has taken place.

Renewable energy investment not only continues to set records. Last year, according to the United Nations, clean energy investment in the developing nations--the most difficult locations for private capital--actually exceeded the level of investment in advanced economies for the first time.

We are very encouraged by this trend, but cognizant of how much remains to be done. Key technology, such as battery storage, still hampers the extent of accessibility. Renewable energy is still, in many ways, an early-stage industry with a significant amount of churning: new entrants, evolving incumbents, mergers, acquisitions and exits.

What is most exciting to us is that we are learning more each day about the financing of renewable resources of whatever type. We are learning more about how to deploy creative financing structures that tap into the right type of capital (grants, equity, debt) at the right phase of a project cycle.

As a result, OPIC is now getting more traction in critical areas such as agriculture, agribusiness, water, fisheries and ecosystem biodiversity.

Earth Day once stood as a day of protest. Environmentalists and economic growth advocates viewed themselves as unyielding foes.

Today, both sides know more, and know better. From off-grid solar power to water recycling systems to efficient building materials, together we are finding truly sustainable solutions that address both environmental and economic needs. That is a timeless approach worth celebrating.

The author is President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. government's development finance institution.