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RMI's plan to help Fortune 500 companies up their renewables game

Published April 22, 2014
RMI's plan to help Fortune 500 companies up their renewables game

Last week, RMI's program to significantly scale the commitment by Fortune 500 companies to source renewable energy was chosen as one of six winners at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit's Finance for Resilience ("FiRe") event. FiRe is designed to identify the best proposals to spur increased investment in renewables and scale them as quickly as possible.

RMI's plan is to create a Business Renewables Resource Center that will help to double clean energy cash flows by 2019 by increasing clean energy procurement by large commercial and industrial companies. While the center initially will focus on the U.S. market, the capability effectively will travel within these large corporations to other countries.

Most of the largest global companies have publicly set ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals, many of which require significant renewable energy solutions. Yet, as of the middle of last year, only 25 large companies together had put in place about 1,000 solar photovoltaic installations in the U.S. And although some companies such as Walmart and Google have gotten into the game at serious scale, investment by most large companies remains small compared to their energy profiles.

Commercial and industrial companies, collectively a major player for scaling renewables — especially wind and solar — are sitting on the sidelines. We see these non-energy, non-finance large companies, which together represent about half of all commercial and industrial energy demand, as ripe for transformation.

What does it take to help large corporations get renewable sourcing deals done? Completing procurement and investment renewable energy deals requires a sophisticated and very persistent transaction team. Struggling to green light renewable energy deals, most find themselves unfamiliar with current practices and daunted by a rapidly changing marketplace. Large-scale investment in renewable energy projects requires that key decision makers in the procurement, finance, legal and accounting departments all have access to information that is pertinent to real-world deal making. Today, that information is expensive, hard to find and often not readily available to companies unless they have a specific energy focus.

RMI aims to change that paradigm with a renewables resource center that offers:

• Direct access to expert corporate transaction teams (procurement, legal, finance, accounting)

• Educational materials and case studies that are broadly available to help senior decision makers approve deals

• Resources for expanding geographically bounded opportunities

• Demand aggregation and auction platforms

It will disseminate pertinent information, often as a direct conduit, to top-tier experts and corporate transactional staff in an affordable, broad and meaningful way. The center will provide education for transaction staff, offer bootcamps for senior executives and publish case studies that detail how peer companies successfully have overcome the challenges.

Watch a video of RMI's CEO Jules Kortenhorst discussing the center below.

This story first appeared at Rocky Mountain Institute's RMI Outlet blog. Photo of a wind turbine at a Walmart in Balzac, Canada via Walmart.

Between a shale rock and a hard place: How I grew to love Earth Day

Published April 22, 2014
Between a shale rock and a hard place: How I grew to love Earth Day

Earth Day is a beautiful and necessary institution but it ironically presents something of a dilemma to environmentalists who have a grasp on the state of the planet.

For how can we celebrate a “greener” world when Bill McKibben already convincingly has told us that we already may be beyond the “point of no return”? How can we celebrate environmental progress when we’re told carbon emissions in the United States are at their lowest point in 20 years, yet it is caused by the use of the allegedly environmentally unfriendly drilling technology of fracking?

These questions stick people like me between a (shale) rock and a hard place. How can we enjoy a day of green without feeling guilty?

I find that it may be best to take a leaf out of George Costanza's book and go against my instincts, as in a 1994 "Seinfeld" episode, "The Opposite":

George Costanza: “My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … it’s often wrong.”

Jerry Seinfeld: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

Lesson learned. If there's no good news of environmental progress we can enjoy, then maybe we should revel in the bad. With that in mind, I plan to embrace Earth Day this year by focusing here on pollution and technology.


In major cities of China — perhaps the most industrially active, populous nation in the world — pollution ranges from being unhealthy to very unhealthy nearly every day of the year. In fact, China’s deputy minister for environmental protection, Wu Xiaoqing, announced that only three out of 74 major cities met national air quality standards in 2013. The country’s hazardous air pollution is rising at such a fast pace that electronics company Panasonic decided to pay hardship bonuses to every Japanese employee sent to work in China.

Lest you think only China has environmental problems, be aware that Paris banned half the cars from its streets in mid-March due to excessive air pollution. Public transportation and bike sharing services were made free to alleviate the inconvenience caused to commuting motorists.

For readers wondering what there is to celebrate here, the answer lies in the signs of change. While there is no such thing as a “free lunch” with a bad environment, there may be higher pay and free subways.

Now, when the going get tough, the tough occasionally does get changing. And that's truly something to celebrate. I witnessed it first-hand, growing up in California where excessive urban pollution became a powerful catalyst for change. The greatest economic challenge that Silicon Valley and Los Angeles faced in the 1970s and 1980s were the heavy levels of smog that were making them undesirable places to live. I, for one, was ready to move away from San Jose after one too many runs left me winded and hacking. Clearly, others felt the same way I did.

The message was heard, and action was taken. To date, smog levels in Los Angeles are down 98 percent from their peak. As environmentalists, we can only hope that the terrible environmental news in China leads to a similar reversal.

For as goes China (PDF), so goes the future of global warming. China is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide with a 29 percent share. The U.S. trails in second place with 16 percent.

Carbon dioxide emissions in China are largely a result of the country’s reliance on coal-burning power plants, which produce 75 percent of all pollutants. As a result, the U.S. effort to decrease emissions is futile if China continues to grow its emissions at the current rate.

Maybe, just maybe, China will react with new policies in 2014. China’s Premier Li Keqiang pledged to "declare war" on pollution, echoing California’s sentiment from years ago. The government plans to shut down 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces in 2014, clean up major coal-burning power plants and remove 6 million high-emission vehicles from the roads. Now this action is something that environmentalists can stand behind! As we celebrate Earth Day, I would like to take the George Costanza opposite approach and cheer that the terrible conditions in China lead to a different path in 2014.


For those uncomfortable with toasting misfortune, there are plenty of positive green achievements worth celebrating. I am a firm believer in the advancement of technology to combat environmental issues. Two particular breakthroughs are especially appealing to me: solar power and a cleaner way to burn garbage.

Solar power, driven by innovative financing and lower costs, is taking off. A solar module costs about 1 percent of what it did 35 years ago, and prices for solar panels have plummeted since 2010 with an average price per watt for modules falling from $1.81 in 2010 to less than 70 cents today.

Storing solar energy is the one missing ingredient for mass acceptance. Tesla’s announcement that it will build a lithium-battery gigafactory to lower the costs of storage may signifiy that an answer to this problem is just around the corner. Excitingly, Tesla (through SolarCity) is testing the combination of its lithium batteries and solar panels in California homes.

On a different renewable-energy front, NRG Energy has developed an innovative way to burn garbage without creating emissions or dangerous ash byproducts. Through their process, garbage is transformed into electricity and gas that can be turned into gasoline. The company estimates that using its technology to burn all the municipal waste in the U.S. would generate enough electricity to make obsolete 175 nuclear and coal power plants (the U.S. currently has about 600 coal power plants). This technology already is being put into place in England and China — another reason to celebrate.

As Earth Day comes and goes every year, it gives us an opportunity to pause and evaluate how humanity is embracing a global approach to being green. We may be separated by borders, languages and political beliefs but we all look up at the same sky, breathe the same air and live on the same Earth. So on Earth Day and every day, let's celebrate technologies, companies and innovations everywhere that lead to a greener, more sustainable future.

Top image of a back-filling machine in an open coal mine by claffra via Shutterstock

VERGE San Francisco

Event Date: October 27, 2014 - October 30, 2014
2 New Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States

San Francisco, CA — Sustainability's next tipping point. Interconnected technologies for energy, buildings and transportation enable radical efficiencies and huge opportunities. VERGE reveals these opportunities, bringing together corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials for practical, scalable, solutions-oriented conversations.

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Elaine Hsieh
Phone: 5105508285
Website: VERGE San Francisco 2014

VERGE Salon: Data Solutions in Cities and Real Estate

Event Date: September 16, 2014
151 East 25th Street, 7th Floor William & Anita Newman Conference Center at Baruch College
New York, NY 10010
United States

New York, NY — VERGE Salons are focused events that bring together sustainability and technology executives to address sustainability solutions across industries and sectors. Using fast-paced presentations, facilitated discussions and focused networking, this one-day salon will offer a deep dive into how technologies can accelerate sustainability solutions using the massive amounts of data in cities and real estate.

Contact Information

Company: GreenBiz Group
Name: Elaine Hsieh
Phone: 5105508285
Website: VERGE Salon: Data Solutions in Cities and Real Estate

11 innovative companies giving energy storage a jolt

Published April 21, 2014
11 innovative companies giving energy storage a jolt

Technological and market forces have converged to make energy storage one of the most exciting — and potentially game-changing — opportunities for commercial and industrial facility managers, grid operators, homeowners and investors.

Forward-thinking utilities, battery suppliers, power inverter producers, system integrators and public-sector supporters are driving a massive expansion of energy storage solutions aimed at enabling the grid of the future — or even a grid-less future.

Although the energy storage value chain includes hundreds — if not thousands — of players, the following are leading the charge.

1. Aquion Energy: A cleaner chemistry

A spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University, Aquion Energy has raised more than $100 million from high-profile investors such as Bill Gates to support its planned 2014 commercial launch of its Aqueous Hybrid Ion batteries and storage systems. Aquion is targeting small- to medium-scale applications, including off-grid and microgrid installations, buildings and grid-scale storage.

M100 battery stack image courtesy of AquionThe company's nontoxic, saltwater-based batteries are designed to deliver high-performance storage while avoiding the expensive maintenance of competing chemistries, such as lead-acid.

This year, Aquion is ramping up commercial production at its manufacturing facility in western Pennsylvania. Pre-commercial products have been developed in partnership with leading inverter and electronics suppliers such as ABB, Outback Power Systems and Siemens. It will be interesting to see what role these partners play in Aquion's commercial rollout.

2. General Electric: A storage giant awakens

As one of the world's biggest providers of power generation equipment, General Electric is positioned to become one of the world's most important players in energy storage as well.

Since investing more than $100 million into its sodium-nickel-chloride battery plant in Schenectady, N.Y., which opened two years ago, GE has begun offering its Durathon Energy Storage Solutions for applications such as charge-discharge-cycling at telecommunications sites, firming and time-shifting for solar or wind generation, grid stabilization for network operators and building energy management for facility owners.

This month, GE announced a new microgrid demonstration project with PowerSteam Inc. in Canada's Ontario province. The project combines wind, natural gas and solar generation with battery storage and electric-vehicle charging. GE's microgrid control system determines when it's most economical to rely on resources within the microgrid and when it's better to buy power from the grid.

GE also supports storage startups such as California-based Stem and England's Highview Power.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Global Energy Storage Database, GE is involved in about a dozen battery storage projects ranging from 100 kilowatts to 10 megawatts, totaling about 16 megawatts of capacity.

GE is targeting $1 billion in annual battery sales by the end of the decade.

3. Green Charge Networks: Power efficiency

Over the past decade, energy costs for commercial and industrial businesses in California have fallen by about 4 percent per year. So why did their electricity bills keep rising?

GreenStation image courtesy of Green ChargeBecause "power is where the pain lies," as a recently published white paper from Santa Clara, Calif.-based start-up Green Charge Networks articulates. In other words, while the cost of energy per kilowatt-hour has fallen, the cost of power per kilowatt — so-called demand charges — has more than offset that decline.

Green Charge has developed a way to reduce these demand charges with its no-money-down lithium-ion battery-based GreenStation energy storage solution for behind-the-meter projects up to 500 kilowatts. It is designed to complement onsite solar, electric vehicle charging and energy efficiency.

"We are an ESCO [energy services company] providing kilowatts instead of kilowatt-hours for the sole purpose of demand charge reduction," explained CEO Vic Shao in an interview. "Our core competency is providing software and services; we let the experts handle the hardware," he added in reference to the company's major lithium-ion battery and inverter suppliers.

Founded in 2009, Green Charge supplied its first GreenStation system to a 7-Eleven retail store in Queens, N.Y., the first retailer with distributed energy storage in the U.S. Other customers include UPS, and the California cities of Lancaster and Redwood City.

"We are no longer in a pilot phase. It's all about commercial deployments," Shao told GreenBiz. "Right now we are signing a contract every week. We have more than 20 installations lined up in California and New York in the next four months with more contracts underway."

4. LG Chem: Leading lithium-ion battery maker

LG Chem, a subsidiary of South Korea's LG Corp., stands apart from most other manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries for stationary applications. Navigant Research ranks the company as the world's No. 1 lithium-ion stationary battery vendor.

Given this primacy, it's not surprising that many leading developers of stationary storage systems are partnering with LG Chem. Building on its experience supplying lithium-ion batteries for electric cars, LG Chem is providing residential, commercial and industrial stationary batteries as well. For example, leading solar inverter manufacturer SMA Technology AG this year plans to launch its new Sunny Boy Smart Energy Home Manager, with LG Chem's lithium-ion batteries at the heart of the system.

The company also is supplying large-scale storage systems to the U.S. market to companies such as AES Energy Storage, Southern California Edison and the Snohomish County Public Utility District.

In addition to LG Chem, numerous other big lithium-ion battery producers — such as BYD, Johnson Controls, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony — also are partnering with solar installers, inverter manufacturers and innovative product integrators.

5. NEC Corporation: Global grid-scale storage

With its acquisition of A123 Energy Solutions — the storage business of A123 Systems — for approximately $100 million, NEC Corp. of Japan claims to be the world's leading supplier of lithium-ion battery storage systems. A global Fortune 500 company, NEC also has the resources to grow its energy storage business geographically across all storage market segments.

To date, U.S.-based A123 Energy Solutions has deployed more than 110 megawatts of its grid-scale storage systems for electric utility, power generation and industrial battery customers such as AES Corp, Maui Electric, Sempra Energy, Southern California Edison and Vestas.

The newly formed company — to be called NEC Energy Solutions — will begin operation in June.

6. NRG Energy: From V2G to 'post-grid future'

NRG Energy's battery storage activities are as diversified as its power generation and retail electricity businesses.

Necker Island image by kansasphoto via FlickrBattery-backed renewable energy will play a key role in the "post-grid future," NRG Energy's chief executive David Crane recently wrote in a letter to shareholders. "We are just getting started in this area with, among other projects, our ground-breaking Necker Island announcement, but we expect to be a leader in the area of renewables-driven ecosystems," wrote Crane.

On Necker Island, part of the British Virgin Islands, NRG is replacing diesel generators with a microgrid that includes photovoltaic (PV) panels and lithium-ion batteries. The project is a partnership with business icon Richard Branson, who owns the island.

It's not the company's first battery-backed solar project in the Caribbean. Last summer, NRG and Sunora Energy Systems — its joint venture with PV wafer producer GCL-Poly — delivered a 100-kilowatt solar array with battery backup at a hospital in Haiti.

The company also is exploring vehicle-to-grid (V2G) applications, for example, through the Grid on Wheels project in Delaware. The project features 30 electric BMW MINIs and V2G aggregation software from the University of Delaware that NRG Energy plans to drive into the marketplace through a joint venture with the university called eV2g.

In addition, NRG is involved in large-scale storage through its investment in Eos Energy Storage, a startup developing a zinc-hybrid-cathode battery technology it calls "Zynth."

7. Princeton Power: Grid-tied storage

Princeton Power's inverters are designed for operation with a variety of battery chemistries and the company offers its own turnkey systems for microgrids, backup power, grid frequency regulation and other applications.

Earlier this year, Princeton launched a partnership with lithium-ion storage company Coda Energy Holdings to supply inverters and energy storage systems to commercial building operators in the Northeast and California. Their aim is to help reduce demand charges for commercial buildings.

According to the DOE's energy storage database, Princeton Power's inverters are being used in at least two dozen grid-tied battery storage projects around the U.S., including projects with Coda Energy, GE, Solar Grid Storage, SolarCity and Tesla.

8. Solar Grid Storage: A match made in the heavens

Pennsylvania-based Solar Grid Storage stores sunlight to provide backup power, demand-charge reduction and peak shaving for commercial and industrial applications.

GridSTAR image courtesy of Solar Grid StorageThe company targets projects in the range of 150 kilowatts to 10 megawatts with its PowerFactor system, which includes lithium ion batteries and power inverters. The company's standard financing offer is to own and service the system on behalf of customers, including solar installers such as Advanced Solar Products, groSolar, Standard Solar, Solaire Generation and Solis Partners.

According to the DOE's global energy storage database, Solar Grid Storage has five 250-kilowatt projects operating within the PJM Interconnection.

9 and 10. SolarCity and Tesla: A dynamic duo

SolarCity, the largest residential PV installer in the U.S., is rolling out storage systems in California that rely on lithium ion batteries supplied by electric carmaker Tesla — whose CEO and founder, Elon Musk, is also SolarCity's chairman. The duo's entry into stationary energy storage is another signal that solar-plus-storage is gaining traction.

Tesla image by Steve Jurvetson via FlickrIn residential applications, SolarCity's system is used only to back-up critical loads. SolarCity hopes to offer its solution to enable residential customers to take advantage of time-of-use rates, ancillary services and PV system interaction — but California regulators currently do not allow it.

SolarCity also is spearheading a 200-kilowatt project to store energy from rooftop solar arrays at Tesla's factory in Fremont, Calif., with the aim of helping Tesla offset millions of dollars in demand charges.

The bigger impact on energy storage could come from Tesla, which recently announced plans to launch a massive factory for U.S.-based lithium ion battery production, the so-called Giga Factory.

11. Sonnenbatterie: From Europe with love

Already with thousands of units deployed in Europe through major utilities such as RWE and E.ON, German company Sonnenbatterie recently announced a partnership with Los Angeles-based SK Solar USA to launch its lithium-iron-phosphate battery system in the U.S.

Sonnenbatterie plans to target regions with peak demand charges for on-grid commercial and residential customers.

According to Boris von Bormann, country manager of Sonnenbatterie North America, the company plans to launch its residential system in the U.S. later this year and its commercial system in 2015.

Sonnenbatterie could be the first of several German storage integrators expanding into North America.

Looking ahead

These 10 companies offer to slash peak power expenses, provide a backup when conventional power goes down, integrate increasing amounts of intermittent renewable energy, reduce grid congestion and enhance the overall resiliency of our electricity systems.

Watch them carefully. Their efforts could change our energy horizon.

Tesla car interior image by j-No via Flickr

Unlocking the value of your company's sustainability strategy

Published April 21, 2014
Unlocking the value of your company's sustainability strategy

A recent BCG/MIT study showed that although 62 percent of companies have a sustainability strategy, only 32 percent saw their actions on sustainability positively impacting their profit, 32 percent said it was a wash and 11 percent said that it subtracted from profit. The rest reported that they didn't know.

Although champions say that sustainability has enormous potential to create value for companies, these findings suggest something is going wrong here. Based on my work over the past several years with a range of large corporate clients, I have identified two common problems that explain why so many companies are struggling to realize the potential of their sustainability strategies.

1. The sustainability strategy is not focused on the right things

The sustainability strategies that create real business value are the ones that meaningfully address the fundamental challenges that sustainability poses to the near and long-term success of the company.

Development of a sustainability strategy that will drive real value must begin with the question, "What matters most for our business over the next two to 20-plus years?" The answer is not always straightforward, but several tools can help.

Life cycle analysis can provide data-driven insight into the most significant environmental impacts and identify "hot spots," which always need to be considered in the context of the business's overall strategy. The LCA insight that most of the environmental impact of its products occurred in the "consumer use" phase of life prompted Procter & Gamble to create Future Friendly and a product line that aimed to reduce that impact, benefitting both P&G and consumers.

Another tool that more companies are relying on is Materiality Assessment, which provides a robust understanding of what matters by engaging a range of internal and external stakeholders to assess and rank environmental, social and economic issues. Increasing use of Materiality Assessments is prompting not just increased reporting of certain risks but also greater action by companies. U.K.-based retailer Marks & Spencer shares the results of their 2013 materiality assessment in their 2013 Plan A report (PDF) and how those results have shaped prioritization of key issues and informed the bold goals that they are developing.

Tools image by Gregory Gerber via ShutterstockOne emerging tool, Natural Capital Accounting, gives companies greater insight into their environmental risks and opportunities by determining the financial value of a company's depletion of nonrenewable resources, and its emissions into the air, water and soil. The best-known example to date is Puma's work to create an EP&L that revealed the 'true' cost of doing business. Other companies are using Natural Capital Accounting to hone in on areas of vulnerability in their supply chains and gain insight into hidden costs which they may someday be responsible for.

These tools all provide well-grounded inputs that can inform the development of the sustainability strategy itself — which must then further consider other relevant inputs such as the company's near- and long-term strategic priorities, significant risks and opportunities the company is facing, and the unique abilities that company has to drive change.

On the flip side, companies who approach their work on sustainability as a marketing opportunity or a philanthropic add-on rather than a substantive business challenge are likely to be disappointed with the value their effort creates. While sharing your company's sustainability story can be a powerful way to connect with consumers, it is not a value creation strategy in itself.

In fact, over-touting your sustainability accomplishments actually creates a real risk of backlash from consumers who see it as greenwashing. And while philanthropic efforts can be a potent complement to sustainable business initiatives, they are not a viable substitute for them.

2. The organizational model is not aligned with today's needs

The past 20 years have seen a significant evolution in the governance of sustainability issues within companies. It wasn't until 2004 that Linda Fisher, first Chief Sustainability Officer, was appointed to a U.S. publicly traded company (DuPont). Since then, many companies have followed suit: By 2012, 283 companies had a full-time sustainability manager.

Office image by PlusONEBut the debate about the appropriate governance for sustainability rages on. While many would agree that there is value in having sustainability as a C-suite priority, others argue that a highly centralized sustainability function actually impedes the degree to which sustainability gets incorporated into the business, where it can best contribute to creating real value.

From what I have seen with my clients, sustainability governance should evolve as the company becomes more sophisticated in its ability to address the challenges and opportunities of sustainability.

Companies in the first phase of their journey often benefit from a high-visibility, more centralized sustainability function. Think of this as a learning period during which the company deepens its understanding of what sustainability means for its business and how it should be incorporated throughout. One oil industry client of mine embraced this model at the beginning of their journey. Sustainability was a CEO priority and each member of the senior leadership team contributed to the development of the company's sustainability strategy. The Sustainability lead then owned the work of guiding the organization to better understand the risks and opportunities presented by sustainability and how the company would address them, with continued "shepherding" support from a central sustainability function.

Companies further down the sustainability path — as many are today are — should consider moving to an embedded model, in which the ownership of day-to-day sustainability decision-making resides with the business. With the embedded model, you may still have some dedicated sustainability staff to support cross-functional coordination and reporting, provide subject-matter expertise and manage special projects, but you will not see a large Sustainability Office doing the heavy lifting for the business.

Green meeting room by Sopotnicki via FlickrOne consumer goods company has done an effective job embedding sustainability in the business by focusing on three things: making expectations and responsibilities explicit; providing both general and specialized training to support employees with this responsibility; and ensuring that sustainability is built into decision-making processes along with all of the other relevant considerations. In this way, sustainability simply becomes the way business is done.

Regardless of which organizational model is in place, it is essential that the accountability for execution of the sustainability strategy be crystal clear.

Companies who build sustainability into their core business strategy and embed sustainability into every employee's job will not be disappointed in the value that their sustainability strategy creates. Rather, they will be rewarded with increased resilience, innovation and long-term sustainable growth.

Key image by Sergio Stakhnyk via Shutterstock

Does sustainability need a new competitive approach?

By Eric Lowitt
Published April 21, 2014
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Tags: Corporate Strategy, Innovation, More... Corporate Strategy, Innovation, Leaders
Does sustainability need a new competitive approach?

Last week, I was invited to become a LinkedIn author, something GreenBiz executive editor and chairman Joel Makower has been since early last year. My first two posts touched on sustainability, but focused on the future of business. I was pleasantly surprised by the pace and size of view counts for each post. So I thought the time had come to submit a post on climate change, especially given the timing of the launch of the latest IPCC findings, the proximity to Earth Day and the publication of my Harvard Business Review article on climate change checklists for businesses.

I was wrong.

In particular, I was wrong about the level of interest in sustainability among the LinkedIn community. Within one hour of my post's launch, it was viewed by only 15 people. Within three hours, that number had "swelled" to 32 people. I pulled the post five hours later. By comparison, my first post with a business focus received 1,200 views within the first nine hours, while my second had over 5,000.

The 'Trojan Horse' approach to sustainability

Small sample size aside, a trend is emerging among senior executives and other business leaders, and it boils down to this: "If you plan to talk to me about sustainability, don't bother." When I shared my LinkedIn story, three prominent sustainability thought leaders shared this idea. C-level executives from several Global Fortune 500 companies who have been in attendance at four of my most recent talks revealed a similar perspective.

It seems as though there's a simple alchemy to landing paid speaking events or opportunities to talk with the C-suite: Be published in a top-tier media outlet and mention the words "leadership," "innovation" or "digital." Indeed, I recently was asked to give a talk to the senior team of a visible business services firm based on an article I wrote on the leadership skills needed for success in the collaborative economy.

Which leads to a thought: To get critical-mass attention on the topic of sustainability, perhaps the time has come to shift strategies in how we talk about it in the first place. Maybe we should de-emphasize the use of the word "sustainability" and focus on something larger, like the future of business. This would allow us to talk about the various significant imperatives that are re-shaping the business terrain, working the ethos of sustainability into a broader canvas. Think of it as the "Trojan Horse" strategy of advancing the sustainability agenda.

What's the right way forward?

I held a trial run of this approach last month at a talk for SAP on the future of business. The first part of my talk focused on the set of imperatives that are collectively changing the world, using "math" as a cipher term to talk about the vexing collection of environmental and social challenges we face. This then led to a discussion about the shift in the C-suite mandate from appeasing shareholders to appeasing stakeholders.

A corollary part of this discussion is how companies can equip social entrepreneurs to launch new businesses that both move the companies’ sustainability agendas forward and raise the standard of living in emerging countries. After five minutes on this topic, I moved to the next section of my talk: what the future of business looks like.

Afterward, six C-suite executives sought me out to talk about "the math problem" in the context of their innovation and growth challenges. In essence, I positioned sustainability as an integral part of the puzzle rather than a panacea for the world's ills.

Admittedly I'm torn about this approach. On the one hand, several companies want to run half-day white-boarding sessions with me on that "math problem." On the other hand, I feel like I encouraged these executives' desire to focus on non-sustainability related challenges — akin to giving the captain permission to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic to complete the day's work.

What do you think about this issue? Is it time to shift tactics on how we catalyze sustainability attention and action? And what are you finding that is working in your organizations?

Photo of Trojan Horse in Canakkale Square, Turkey by mg1408 via Shutterstock



Earth Day and the polling of America 2014

By Joel Makower
Published April 21, 2014
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Tags: Consumer Trends, Marketing & Communication
Earth Day and the polling of America 2014

At age 44, Earth Day has reached middle age, as has the modern environmental movement. And while Earth Day celebrations have become part of the social fabric around the world — with activities in schools, communities, parks, companies and just about everywhere else — public opinion about the environment has become stodgy, at least in the United States.

As is typical of middle age, Americans’ environmental attitudes seem stuck between the exuberant, energetic idealism of youth and the wisdom and awareness that comes with older years.

That’s my conclusion from reading the latest crop of public opinion surveys and polls, as I do every year about this time. This is my eighth annual reading of the tea leaves, combing through mind-numbing data to assess America’s environmental zeitgeist. (Here are reports from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

The 2014 edition finds that despite extreme weather events; the warnings of impending doom from the world’s scientific community; increased and cost-competitive choices for renewable energy, fuel-efficient cars, green cleaners and organic foods; and the collective green marketing efforts of both business and government — well, we’re kind of stuck.

“There has not been much change in Americans' climate and environmental values over the past two years,” concluded ecoAmerica’s VALS-based climate and environmental values research series. Indeed, it found, traditional environmental values were trending "very slightly downward" in 2013 from prior years.

Americans are less inclined to believe in economic and technological benefits of solving environmental problems. The association between environmental protection and economic growth also dropped, from 82 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2013. This may be a result of an active campaign by climate deniers to undermine support for climate solutions.

According to ecoAmerica, large pluralities of Americans say they are “somewhat” or “very” convinced that climate change is happening (71 percent) and that humans “definitely” can or “might be able to” reduce climate change’s impacts (76 percent). “These statistics seem encouraging for climate solutions advocates — but they obscure a more complicated reality,” say the authors:

Amidst the Americans who are convinced that climate change is happening are two different groups of people with different attitudes and motivations. Most Americans are only “somewhat convinced.” They don’t associate climate change with their other priorities and are not inclined to support action. Only the “very convinced” are willing to take action. This group tends to be made up of higher-resourced Americans with greater wealth, health and education.

One challenge is that Americans don’t seem to know whether the environment is getting better or worse, according to Gallup’s annual environmental pulse-taking. Gallup found that 50 percent of Americans think environmental problems are getting worse and 42 percent think they are getting better. Compare that to 2008, when 68 percent thought the environment was getting worse and 26 percent thought it was getting better. That suggests Americans are more optimistic about the fate of the Earth than they were six years ago, although it’s unclear why.

But that doesn’t square with other Gallup data, which concluded:

The percentage expressing a great deal of worry about pollution of drinking water, as well as contamination of soil and water by toxic waste, increased by seven percentage points. Worry about climate change and global warming, on the other hand, went up by no more than two points versus last year.

Americans' generally low level of concern about global warming compared with other environmental issues is not new; warming generally has ranked last among Americans' environmental worries each time Gallup has measured them with this question over the years. Concern about pollution of drinking water generally has been at the top of the list.

Overall, says Gallup, Americans remain more negative than positive about the environment. They are less likely to see environmental quality in the U.S. as "excellent" or "good" (44 percent) than to see it as "only fair" or "poor" (55 percent). More broadly, Americans are not very concerned with the climate, at least compared with other issues.

To buy or not to buy?

Surveys about consumer attitudes toward buying green products and services continue to be optimistic — overly so, in my opinion — continuing a trend that has persisted for 25 years.

More than half of shoppers in 24 countries say they “care what efforts brands are making to help the environment,” according to Ipsos OTX, the global innovation center for market and opinion research firm Ipsos. Shoppers in Argentina (70 percent give a rating of 4 or 5 on a five-point scale), Mexico (68 percent) and Indonesia (66 percent) lead the pack, with U.S. consumers right in the middle at 52 percent, roughly the same as Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Sweden.

Those most likely to agree they would be willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products are from: Indonesia (59 percent), India (59 percent) and China (58 percent). Just under a third (32 percent) of U.S. consumers agreed, tied with Russians.

Environmental issues get personal when it comes to food. Americans say they are “willing to sacrifice variety and dollars in order to eat more consciously,” according to the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker. Although family satisfaction reigns supreme (97 percent), shoppers consider health and nutrition (93 percent) and sustainability (77 percent) important factors when deciding what to buy.

(Let’s not overlook the fact that questions like this are annoying, if not dangerous: they telegraph to participants that conscious eating or environmental shopping requires them to “sacrifice variety and dollars,” as in this survey, or quality and convenience in other surveys. As has been well proven, environmentally conscious shopping and eating can be convenient, affordable and enjoyable, without sacrifice.)

One might find solace in the results of a survey (PDF) conducted by the University of Michigan Energy Institute. It found that 60 percent of respondents worried "a great deal" or a "fair amount" about the environmental impact of energy use. By comparison, 55 percent worried a great deal or fair amount about energy affordability. The two concerns, researchers say, basically were equivalent.

"That was an eye opener for us," said professor John DeCicco. "I wouldn't have guessed that we would have gotten, statistically speaking, an equally strong response."

Could it be that Americans are finally recognizing that the price of energy may not reveal its full cost, in terms of its environmental and social impacts?

I’m reading a lot into this in the hopes that somewhere in this year’s crop of data is something hopeful.

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group

Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:


Studio C: Ernst & Young's Steve Starbuck says assurance is on the rise

Published April 21, 2014
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Tags: Corporate Reporting, GreenBiz Forum, Measuring, Reporting, & Verification

Companies striving to prove their green credibility and compliance often rely on assurance auditing. And according to Steve Starbuck, the Americas leader of climate change and sustainability services for Ernst & Young, this need is only growing. To do assurance right, he says, it's important to embrace a holistic approach. "It's to the benefit of the client if we combine the expertise of financial assurance auditing with the auditing of non-financial and sustainability auditors," he said during a Studio C chat at GreenBiz Forum 2014. "So we team very closely to give the client the best possible service."


AT&T and EDF open up water efficiency toolkit

By Heather Clancy
Published April 18, 2014
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Tags: Energy Efficiency, Resource Efficiency, More... Energy Efficiency, Resource Efficiency, Water, Water Efficiency & Conservation, Water Use
AT&T and EDF open up water efficiency toolkit

After two years of researching water efficiency across a portfolio of 125 buildings, AT&T and the Environmental Defense Fund are releasing their best practices and a toolkit that other companies can use to assess performance at their own facilities.

One notable company planning to use the resource is AT&T's rival Verizon, which is training its next class of EDF Climate Corps fellows to use the technology.

"We put a lot of thought into the development of these resources with the intent of empowering people to use them on their own," said Namrita Kapur, managing director of the Corporate Partnerships Program at EDF. "It's open, so you can adjust it to your own operations if you need to do so."

Initially, EDF and AT&T are focusing their outreach on organizations and "iconic buildings" in five water-stressed metropolitan areas: Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix, Kapur said. "Ideally, we want to have people set goals to reduce consumption," she said. "We want to see tangible results."

The Water Management Application (WaterMAPP) is a free Excel-based toolkit that currently consists of two components, including a Water Scorecard for calculating performance based on information unique to your company as well as historical data about things like weather patterns or consumption trends.

The second piece, the Water Efficiency Calculator, can be used to run what-if scenarios that help teams consider the impact of changing settings for cooling towards or embracing alternate approaches — such as a free-air ventilation or emerging technologies for wastewater management, recycling and other conservation approaches.

Approximately 28 percent of the water consumption associated with an average building goes toward cooling, said John Schulz, assistant vice president of sustainability operations at AT&T.

The carrier is using the templates and tools in WaterMAPP to assess which investments will yield the largest water savings. So far it has seen reductions ranging from 13 percent to 40 percent, Schulz said. The portfolio of buildings for which AT&T has used the toolkit accounted for approximately half of the company's overall water use in 2010.

AT&T's overall water reduction goal is 150 million gallons by the end of 2015. AT&T and EDF believe that if a majority of buildings across the United States were optimized using suggestions or metrics from the WaterMAPP toolkit, the potential water savings could approach 28 billion gallons annually. That's about the same amount of water used in 750,000 American homes every year.

Although water efficiency isn't as widely understood — or backed with funding — as energy efficiency, the concept is getting more attention. Water scarcity now rates among the top two or three risk factors for many multinational companies, and some U.S. cities – including Denver and Dallas – have begun studying the regional implications of this issue, said Tim Fleming, director of sustainability operations at AT&T.

Top image of building heating pipes by via Shutterstock


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