How Sustainability is Driving Top Business Priorities – Insights from GreenBiz 2019

Commercial solar and energy storage still remain top of mind for corporate energy managers and sustainability leaders, based on the agenda at the GreenBiz conference this year. Senior directors and C-level executives from some of the largest U.S. companies were also there talking about other trending sustainability topics such as renewable energy procurement, ethical manufacturing, water stewardship, plastic pollution, transparency in supply chains, climate change, and investing in change.

The three-day event brings together decision-makers from all industries, across all verticals, to collaborate on issues affecting their business. This was our first time sponsoring this event, and we were thrilled to participate and share these key insights from the conference.

Sustainability is a top-down business priority across all sectors

One message is clear: corporate executives are aware and agree that consumer demand is a big driver for implementing clean energy and sustainability initiatives. There has been a surge in demand for products and services that are sustainably sourced, have smaller carbon footprints, are produced using clean energy, and align with consumers’ beliefs that corporations need to be more environmentally conscious. Companies know that they risk losing customers to competitors if they choose not to respond to their customers’ buying preferences.

Sustainability is no longer a peripheral topic for corporate executives – it’s now a core business decision that impacts their entire operations.

Mainstream investors talked about how they have incorporated Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) metrics into their ratings in order to encourage more sustainable business practices. Financial analysts at S&P, Moody’s and Fitch Group are all looking at supply chains with sustainability in mind and identifying risk areas such as plastics-heavy packaging, local water supplies, or rising energy costs – all of which can change a company’s financial outlook. In just the last few years, ESG has rapidly become the standard in sustainable financing. Of the assets under professional management in the United States, one out of every four dollars invested is attached to ESG criteria. This represents a total estimated amount of $12 trillion dollars nationally and $23 trillion globally.

Sustainable supply chains

We heard all types of company leadership talk about their efforts to incorporate sustainability practices throughout their entire supply chains. By taking steps such as reducing paper and plastic waste, investing in low-carbon technologies, managing water and land resources, switching to low-carbon technologies, and shifting to renewable energy, business leaders are not only improving products and services, they are saving significant costs on materials and energy. Companies are not only setting these goals internally, they’re making them a top priority and starting to require their suppliers to meet environmental requirements as well.

Multi-Site Commercial Solar Portfolio, Installed by Borrego Solar

Bold renewable energy goals

Even though on a federal level the U.S. has stepped back from the Paris Climate Agreement, there are a growing number of business and government leaders making the commitment to reduce carbon emissions. WeAreStillIn is a bi-partisan group of over 3,500 organizations across all 50 states that have pledged to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. This group is comprised of large and small businesses, financial investors, cities, counties, colleges, universities, and cultural institutions – together representing an estimated $9.4 trillion in U.S. GDP.

Similarly, more than 150 of the world’s most influential companies in retail, biotechnology, manufacturing, banking, technology, and consumer goods have joined together as part of the RE100 to publicly commit to 100% renewable energy within various time frames. Though the dates vary by company, from 2020 to 2035 and even 2050, all companies in the RE100 are setting aggressive goals and making significant changes to their business to address climate concerns. According to the group, the commercial and industrial sector consume about two-thirds of the world’s electricity. Switching to renewable energy gives companies greater control over energy costs, increased competitiveness, greater supplier engagement, and delivery on emissions goals.

Installing solar energy

Most of the large companies we heard from already adopted some degree of solar energy, given that commercial solar energy is often one of the first and most obvious options to consider when companies get started with their renewable energy planning. Rooftops, parking areas, and adjacent land can be used to generate clean energy, save on operating expenses, and achieve corporate tax benefits. Companies with multiple properties in their portfolio can install solar across their corporate campuses — often achieving greater financial results while also creating a green workplace for their employees.

Solar Carport Provides Shade to Employee Parking Lot, Installed by Borrego Solar

Energy storage maximizes the potential of clean energy generation

During GreenBiz, panelists discussed pairing on-site solar with storage. Due to a decline in battery prices and improvement of technologies available, energy storage helps lower demand charges, optimizes time-of-use rates, and maximizes the potential of clean energy cost savings.

Large corporations, technology firms, and the manufacturing sector are some of the earliest adopters of solar energy. Now with the current state of the energy storage market, these companies can add energy storage to those sites. On the other hand, companies currently adopting solar should consider integrating energy storage at the time of construction.

One of the biggest challenges for companies deploying energy storage has been learning about the different storage technologies and working with local permitting agencies, which are still establishing codes and processes for energy storage projects. Whole Foods shared an example of an energy storage project that was approved and permitted but then had the permit pulled back by the Fire Marshal, who asked them to change the location of the battery unit. This new location put the economics of the entire project under water, and they lost valuable time and money.

With a steeper learning curve on new energy storage technology, it’s ideal to work with an energy storage partner that can help work through issues that will come up and might otherwise hold up or add unnecessary costs to an energy storage project.

Creating a sustainable employee culture

Business leaders also talked about creating sustainable work environments and engaging employees to help achieve corporate sustainability goals. Several companies at GreenBiz found meaningful ways to gain employee buy-in and participation — and even help employees reduce their carbon footprint outside of work. For example, one company provided a small stipend for purchasing electric vehicles, expecting maybe 10% of employees to participate. The company was pleasantly surprised when more than half of the employees used this benefit. Other companies talked about connecting employees with community solar programs.

Solar and energy storage procurement

There’s no doubt that solar and energy storage will continue to be core to corporate sustainability initiatives. According to Greentech Media, in 2018 corporate renewable procurement was at an all-time high and that is only expected to rise.

For companies pursuing on-site solar and/or energy storage projects, it’s common to go through a formal RFP solicitation process. A handful of the larger companies at GreenBiz hinted at moving away from complex bidding scenarios and working with a smaller group of known solar partners to help them develop and build the right commercial solar project for their needs. This enables them to scope out the financing and energy specifications early in the process and work with a partner that understands the company’s overall goals.

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