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Big business invests big in green energy. When will the government?

OPINION: Apple recently announced a $850 million investment in solar energy. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Google have all invested big in renewable energy.

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    Apple said on Tuesday it will buy about $850 million of power from a new California solar farm to cut its energy bill. This comes after its stock market value closed above $700 billion for the first time.
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Lynn Scarlett, managing director for public policy at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

While everyone still has to carry around a phone charger for the forseeable future, Apple is taking a different approach to its own energy supply. In a recent announcement, the tech giant committed to an $850 million agreement to buy continuous power directly from a huge solar plant in California.

For Apple, the benefits are clear. The 25-year contract provides the company with a reliable supply of electricity, at a secure price, with the latest energy technology. For the global future, the benefits are clear, too. Apple's decision affirms that clean energy, climate solutions and economic opportunity can converge.

Apple isn't investing in solar as a global "green gift."  It's investing in solar energy because it's good business. As Apple CEO Tim Cook stressed at a recent business conference, "We expect to have very significant savings."

This largest-ever deal by the one of the biggest companies in the world immediately becomes the visible and symbolic example of what's possible today for private sector companies to drive clean energy investments.  Apple, Wal-Mart, Amazon, Google, and others are investing in energy security, reliability and infrastructure with a generational timeline in mind. [The Time for Wind and Solar Energy is Now (Op-Ed)]

For example, last year Google signed a 400-megawatt deal for wind energy, bringing its total wind energy commitment to 1 gigawatt, enough to power the equivalent of 750,000 homes. During the past two years, Microsoft has entered into deals for 285 megawatts of wind energy, including one of the world's biggest contracts for a single office facility. And Wal-Mart has been installing solar panels on the tops of its big box retailing stores since 2009 now providing more than 100 megawatts of energy capacity. Corporate investments like those help with the bottom line, and they reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Last fall, more than 100 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were among the attendees at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York City. At the summit, a dozen of those companies — including Ikea, Swiss Re and Nestle — committed to meeting 100 percent of their energy needs with clean power by 2020. Apple's latest announcement suggests that the public can expect much more, globally, from companies as world leaders gear up for the most important climate negotiations in years, taking place this December in Paris. 

But companies and new-energy market pioneers can't drive progress alone. Governments need to step up to the plate as well — locally, regionally and nationally. Utility regulation restructuring and regional upgrading of grid systems could help spur innovation. And national measures that support energy efficiency and technology innovation — and establish incentives that help drive investments toward a low-carbon future — provide the foundations for accelerating and broadening clean energy solutions.  Preliminary steps like the U.S.-China climate announcement from November, and sections of President Obama's Climate Action Plan represent initial progress towards those objectives.

As nations prepare to meet in Paris, The Nature Conservancy expects to see an initial round of commitments from countries on climate action by the end of March. The good news for nations, as they contemplate those commitments, is that the private sector is showing how to transcend long-standing debates that once positioned climate action against economic opportunity.

"We know that climate change is real ," Cook said this month. "Our view is that the time for talk has passed, and the time for action is now. We've shown that with what we've done." 

Apple has also shown how what's good for climate action can also be good for business. Wouldn't it be great to see a government wow us the same way Apple just did? The time for action is now, and leaders will be rewarded.

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