Where small businesses are a secret weapon in clean energy

Chambers of commerce from Arkansas to Utah are helping to advance renewable energy.

Google. Walmart. Apple. General Motors. These giant U.S. companies have made their interest in procuring clean energy abundantly clear, not just through idle commitments but through new initiatives, such as the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, that seek to unite their enormous purchasing clout.

Increasingly, however, much smaller businesses are speaking up about the benefits of clean energy or energy efficiency measures. Some are uniting their voices through the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE), a five-year-old nationwide organization that represents 2,000 chambers of commerce from all over the United States.

It turns out, in fact, that there is very strong support for more sustainable energy management practices in regions you wouldn’t necessarily think of first as strong advocates of the sustainable business movement, according to Diane Doucette, co-founder and executive director of CICE. Among those trumpeting the cause most loudly as part of a new CICE video series are more than a dozen chambers from states including Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan and Utah.

"Local chambers have not been at the table at important clean energy discussions," Doucette said. "They haven’t been as actively engaged as they probably should be. We got together to help change this."

Some cities and regions see new economic development tied to renewable energy projects. The chamber of commerce representing Van Wert, Ohio, for example, rallied around the potential for wind power after Iberdrola Renewables poured more than $225 million into the nearby Blue Creek Wind Farm. The developer is the largest corporate taxpayer in the county, and probably will be so over close to the next two decades. But Iberdrola apparently squeaked in its investment just in time.

"The irony of what has happened in Ohio with renewable energy is State Bill 310 that basically put a temporary freeze on the renewable energy standards that utilities were expected to reach by the year 2025," noted Susan Munrose, president and CEO of the Van Wert Area Chamber of Commerce, in her region’s CICE video.

"State Bill 486 is the tripling of the setback distance that turbines must be from one another, and that stopped all wind farm development. There were other counties in Ohio that had other wind farm companies ready to spend hundreds of millions in the state of Ohio. The battle over renewable energy in the state of Ohio is at a really interesting cross point because the state is pursuing companies that want to build Big Data centers. And what do these companies that want to build Big Data centers want? They want renewable energy."

Energy efficiency still trumps clean energy 

Although the reasons that chambers of commerce across the United States are focusing more on energy issues are often very region-specific, there are some common themes. Many have come to realize that energy efficiency initiatives are often accompanied by cost savings benefits for companies large and small, as a hedge against rising power prices. Others recognize the positive visibility that attention to environmental concerns brings for tourism and for young people just starting their careers.  

"Being known as a place that is giving back to its natural resources is a differentiation," said Doug Luciani, president and CEO of TraverseConnect, the chamber representing Traverse City, Michigan, explaining his group’s rationale for speaking up.

Traverse City, in the northernmost part of the state, long has balanced competing interests in an economy closely tied to the environment. The region produces more tart cherries than any other place in the United States. Peaches, apricots and plums are also plentiful, so it’s hardly surprising to hear that Traverse City is home to one of the nation’s biggest commercial pie businesses. The population triples during the summer, when tourists flock to its lake resorts. At the same time, the region is also home to rich oil and natural gas reserves. It must also represent those interests.

"We’re a very conscious, intelligent region that has a diverse economy," Luciani said.

One of the Traverse City chamber’s most effective programs for raising awareness — and for helping kick-start corporate energy-efficiency measures — is a revolving loan program that funds equipment upgrades, managed by a local economic development fund, Venture North, along with the local utility, Traverse City Light & Power. Local businesses can borrow up to $50,000 for up to five years at interest rates of zero to 5 percent for these improvements. As businesses pay off their loans, the fund opens up for improvements. "The money keeps coming back," Luciani said.

Environmental benefits equal economic benefits

In Fayetteville, Arkansas — close to the headquarters sites of both giant retailer Walmart and food processor Tyson — the local chamber encourages energy efficiency measures through a six-year-old program called Greenway (PDF).

To participate, businesses submit to an independent audit of their energy consumption, waste management policies, water usage, procurement processes, how well they promote environmental awareness in the workplace with responsible commuting polices and so forth. If a company passes, it can market itself as Greenway accredited. So far, 33 organizations have earned the right to market this recognition, according to the chamber’s website.

"Sustainable business practices are something that every business would like to have, at least without having to write a big check," said Steve Clark, president and CEO of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 1,200 companies in the area.

The program’s visibility is changing habits throughout the Fayetteville region, Clark said. One way that the chamber has encouraged some companies to take the risk of a Greenway audit is by agreeing not to disclose when someone fails. Instead, the business is given specific recommendations for making changes and receives a chance to try again. The certification isn’t perpetual; it must be renewed every two years, recognizing that what counts as a hallmark of efficiency will change over time.

 

Farther west in Salt Lake City, the 8,000-business chamber of commerce prioritizes initiatives that make the link between reducing emissions and long-term regional viability more obvious, said Ryan Evans, vice president of business and community relations for the organization, which also participated in the video series. "We made it an economic development issue rather than an environmental issue," he said.

One ongoing campaign the chamber aligns itself closely is the Clear the Air Challenge, which pits participants against each other annually in a month-long competition to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles throughout the region. The contest has been ongoing since 2009, as a measure to help address excess ozone and other air pollution during summer months. Last year, the effort reduced emissions by 3,600 tons and save an estimated $5.5 million, according to the challenge’s website. More than 92 percent of last year’s participants were part of corporate teams, Evans said.

"Lots of businesses were doing things proactively, because of the bottom-line benefits," Evans said. "The less you use, the more you save."

The array at the Rio Tinto stadium is the fourth largest solar installation at a U.S. professional sports facility.

The Utah chamber, which also has influence at the state level, is also working on ways to draw more attention to renewable energy development going on throughout the region. According to data from the Utah Geological Survey, almost 166 megawatts of new utility-scale solar generating capacity was installed in the state during 2015. By 2017, there could be almost 850 MW of solar energy online, more than for any other clean energy alternative combined.

Elsewhere, smaller installations are helping draw visibility to renewables. One example is the 6,500-panel, 2.1-MW project recently activated at the Rio Tinto Stadium. The array, which covers the parking structures, will handle about 73 percent of the facility’s power needs. It’s the largest commercial array in the state. "That’s something the chamber needs to embrace," Evans said.