02/14/2014 03:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

How the Planet Could Take Gold for $51 Billion

It has taken seven years of planning, billions of dollars, the complete transformation of a resort town and in just over two weeks it will all be over.

After much anticipation, the biggest and most expensive Olympics are finally upon us, resurrecting the self-indulgent spirit of Dostoevsky's "Fyodor Karamazov."

What was originally pitched to cost $12 billion has ballooned into a $51 billion expense. All this money and for what? So that people sitting on a couch anywhere in the world can watch superhero athletes ski through gates, skate over ice and fly through the air? Out of all the Olympic scandals, arguably the most offensive is that Russia has spent $51 billionon pure entertainment when the rest of the planet is in the midst of a crisis, either burning up or freezing over.

Isn't it time we reassess (or even begin to assess) our priorities?

The money spent on hosting the Sochi Olympics was poured into Olympic facilities, infrastructure, "speculative investment," and various forms of corruption.

What else could Russia have done with that sum of money? What if instead, they had invested $51 billion in securing a clean and sustainable energy future?

They could have beat out India to take the title for the world's largest solar farm eleven times over. Currently, the world's largest solar farm, scheduled to come online in India in 2016, is projected to cost $4 billion and is geared to produce 6.4 billion kilowatt-hours per year (roughly the energy-output capacity of four full-size nuclear reactors). Therefore, for the price of hosting a two-week event, Russia could have constructed eleven gigantic solar farms, providing power for approximately eleven million Russians, close to eight percent of their entire population.*

For what it cost to produce the Olympic games, Russia could have taken gold by erecting not one but sixteen of the world's largest offshore wind farms (the largest of which is located in the outer Thames Estuary in the UK). With sixteen of these bad boys, Russia could generate ten gigawatts of electricity.**

Alternatively, for the price of hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia could have stepped up their game and picked up half of the tab for the world's "Green Climate Fund," designed as a fund to cover cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in poor nations to protect communities at risk from climate disruption, such as rising sea levels, droughts and damage to crops.

If Russia made an investment of this scale, the country would transform their current energy model. Today, Russia is the world's largest gas exporter, the second largest producer of natural gas, the third largest oil producer, and the third largest generator of nuclear power.

If Russia did shift the makeup of their energy production towards renewable energy generation it would create ongoing economic investment long after the last athlete, journalist and fan has packed up and left Sochi.

It is not as if Russia isn't attempting to move in this direction. The government did pass a resolution in 2009 with the goal of generating 4.5 percent of the nation's energy from renewable sources by 2020. According to government estimates, reaching the 4.5 percent target would require up to 25 gigawatts of new installed renewable energy capacity by 2020.

So maybe Russia crossed "hosting the Olympic games" off their list. But where are they on achieving their self-imposed renewable energy targets? Will they win gold, silver, or bronze? According to the Energy Forecasting Agency, they aren't even close. Only about 0.3 - 0.4 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity will be installed by 2020, falling miles behind of the 25 gigawatt required to achieve their target. Had Russia invested the money they spent on the Olympic games on the solar farms instead, they would have met this goal six years early.

I have nothing against the Olympics; it is arguably the world's longest standing tradition. However, in the spirit of the Olympics, what if we capitalized on our patriotic zeal and innate urge to compete and used it instead for humanity's collective benefit? What if the world's countries competed not for the fastest, strongest, most talented athletes but instead for the most productive renewable energy technologies, the largest energy storage battery, or the most advanced carbon sequestration technologies?

The journalist Roland Oliphant writes in the Telegraph, "Mr. Putin and his team have mobilised every arm of the Russian state to make a grand ambition come true. State-owned banks, oil companies, the national railway monopoly -- and several of the country's richest oligarchs -- have all been dragooned into doing their bit." Well here's another "grand ambition" for you Putin: mobilize your country to transition Russia's renewable energy capacity from empty goals on paper into a world leader in production.

Some say the complete transition to clean energy is impossible -- that it can't or won't happen -- claiming that either we don't have the means, funds or technology. In this moment the overused adage comes to mind, "Where there is a will there is a way." Clearly, it is not that it can't happen. It's that it will take a major readjustment of our priorities for us to win gold, not for just our respective countries but for the entire planet.

*Assuming per capita electricity consumption in Russia of 6,430.62 kWh (6.4 billion kilowatt-hours/ 6,430.62 kWh) x 11 = 11 million Russians.

**The London Array contains 175 3.6MW turbines with a combined generating capacity of 630MW (630MWx16 = 10GW)