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How BofA, MGM Resorts, EDF & ASU push sustainability with convergence

<p>What happens when convergence comes to banks, businesses, colleges and casinos? Bank of America, MGM Resorts, Arizona State University and EDF talk about their strides toward sustainability.</p>

There are plenty of examples of how things go awry in the world of business and buildings when it comes to growth and environmental impacts -- those problems help fuel the sustainability solutions industry.

Increasingly, however, companies and institutions are pursuing initiatives and enterprise solutions within their organizations, as well as outside partnerships, to reduce costs and the consumption of resources.

Four organizations with positive stories to tell were center stage at the VERGE DC conference yesterday to talk about what can happen when convergence comes to banks, businesses, colleges and casinos.

Lane Burt, the U.S. Green Building Council's director of technical policy, moderated the panel that included the representatives for the Bank of America, MGM Resorts, which happens to be Las Vegas' biggest employer and Nevada's largest taxpayer, the Environmental Defense Fund and Arizona State University -- a seemingly unlikely mix, even in sustainability circles.

From left, Lane Burt, Lisa Shpritz, Cindy Ortega, Victoria Mills and Duke Reiter.

Bank of America

For example, it has not been the best of times for the financial services industry, observed Lisa Shpritz, a senior vice president in the Global Environmental Group for Bank of America.

Buffeted by the economy and under pressure to provide greater accountability and transparency in its operations, the industry faces enhanced scrutiny from regulators as well as the public. Criticism is swift and sharp for moves perceived as missteps.

However, the challenges and trying times have provided "an opportunity to show the innovation and strength we have as a industry," Shpritz said. "In the sustainability area, we've been doing some great work."

For BofA, that has included stepping up environmental goals by setting a new target of reducing corporate greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent worldwide and achieving LEED green building certification for 20 percent of company real estate. It also has entailed prominent roles in initiatives that are built on public-private partnerships:

  • Last May, the company launched a $55-million low-cost loan and $5-million grant program for community development financial institutions. The competitive program for community lenders is designed to encourage energy efficiency retrofits in older buildings.
  • It also is among the companies that have joined Duke Energy, public agencies, institutions and nonprofits in "Envision Charlotte," an effort to transform the central district of the North Carolina city (where BofA is headquartered) into a model of sustainability.

Burt asked what prompted the bank's actions, particularly the loan program, Shpritz replied: "Because healthy stable communities are good customers. We live and work in the communities we are serving."

MGM Resorts International

Given its locale and the nature of its business, Las Vegas gaming and hospitality behemoth MGM Resorts International is another firm that doesn't readily come to mind in discussions of sustainability -- especially since "large" generally isn't associated with green.

MGM's portfolio includes 14 Las Vegas properties, and those holdings include 50 percent investment interest in the 67-acre CityCenter development. While the company's operations are outsized, so are the firm's efforts to mitigate it. In 2010, MGM earned Green Key certification -- a standard used in the hospitality industry -- for a dozen properties, nearly all of them in Las Vegas.

In addition, the CityCenter development has earned six LEED-Gold ratings from the USGBC, noted Cindy Ortega, MGM Resorts' senior vice president and chief sustainability officer. Elements in place at the largest LEED development project of its kind include fixtures, equipment and systems developed specifically for the complex, including:

  • Air displacement units built into the bases of slot machines so that the gaming floors can be cooled -- and when necessary, warmed -- from the floor up, rather than the ceiling down. The process is not only more energy efficient, it also promotes better air quality.
  • A fleet of about 30 limos that were designed to run on compressed natural gas -- a first for the hospitality industry and passenger car services.

Also, Ortega said, CityCenter includes a combined heat and power plant that generates 9 megawatts of electricity and 7 megawatts of heat, the latter being enough to satisfy the needs for domestic hot water.

Glancing at the audience, Ortega said, "I know you guys don't believe any of this, I really do." Nevertheless, she emphasized, the design elements and technology are delivering strong results, which make the properties popular in the meetings and events circuit. Companies are more careful about business travel, costs and related impacts, so when they have off-site gatherings they want to hold them at lodgings and venues that "reflect their environmental principles," she said.

She also pointed with pride at her company's efforts to work with local agencies on a proposal to change local regulations so that variable speed pumps can be used in swimming pools and water displays to save energy without making water quality unsafe. Without the change, the law requires pumps to run at full tilt 24/7, even during winter and other times when people aren't using pools, she said. A test project has drawn reps from the pool and spa industry, and the effort already is showing returns in less than a year, according to Ortega.

"This is a convergence of business and community" Ortega said. "This is an example of how business can help show the way."

EDF Climate Corps

But sometimes, businesses need an outsider to help show them the way. That's where the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate Corps program comes in, said Victoria Mills, managing director for EDF's Corporate Partnerships Program.

The program pairs MBA candidates with firms for a summer and the fellows develop an energy saving plan for their host companies. The inaugural program in 2008, placed seven students at California companies, where the fellows found $35 million in possible energy savings, said Mills.

During the past four years, the fellows have identified more than $1 billion in energy savings for participating companies. [Here are stats from EDF.]

Arizona State University

Colleges and universities play important roles in the partnerships that unite businesses, cities and NGO in sustainability initiatives, according to Duke Reiter, senior vice president and managing director of the Arizona State University Foundation for A New American University.

In addition to providing the student power for programs like the EDF Climate Corps, schools serve as a test bed for technology and practices, they work with companies to develop new tech and solutions, and the campus environment is fertile ground for creative thinking. They can also function as research and innovation hubs. And, as in the case with ASU, schools can be catalysts in the sustainability movement, according to Reiter.

ASU, for example, was one of the 12 universities -- through its president Michael Crow -- to become a founding signatory of the now 5-year-old American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. It is also one of the U.S. focal points of the Sustainability Consortium, Reiter noted.

Burt praised efforts of the two businesses, the NGO  and the university to advance sustainability. But he also emphasized that it will take time, and a great deal more effort, to scale the type of changes the panelists described to a level that will transform the built environment.

That's where businesses can shine, Ortega said. "Business has the scale," she said. "And if they [companies] have the ambition and desire to change the world, they can."

Photos from VERGE DC by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group.

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