Guest blog: The Gulf between Washington and Corporate America on Climate and Energy

13 August 2014 by Brandon Smithwood Brandon Smithwood

Guest blog by Brandon Smithwood and Bryn Baker. Smithwood is a Senior Manager on the Policy Program at Ceres and Baker is a Manager for Climate Change and Renewable Energy at World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Once again, we head into the August Congressional recess with a lot of unfinished business, even on issues where there is bipartisan agreement that something should be done.

The to-do list is piling up. A long-term transportation-funding fix figured out? No. Immigration reform? Nope. Tax reform? Nada. Passing two practical, bipartisan pieces of legislation: the EXPIRE Act and the MLP Parity Act? Unfinished business.

The wind industry hangs in the balance with the future of the Production Tax Credit uncertain and we continue to unnecessarily hamper growing US investment and job creation.

Luckily for wind – and the planet – Congress isn’t the only game in town. A case in point is hundreds of miles away from D.C., in Illinois’s Kankakee and Iroquois counties. There the Pilot Hill Wind Project has a new customer: Microsoft. Microsoft entered into a 20-year agreement for power form the Project. The wind farm gets a new stable consumer; Microsoft gets a valuable hedge against price volatility and a green way to power its energy hungry data centers.

But Microsoft is not alone. It’s part of a growing trend.

Last month Calvert Investments, Ceres, David Gardiner & Associates, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a new report, Power Forward 2.0. The report shows that clean energy is becoming mainstream for U.S. corporations – nearly half of the Fortune 500 have climate and clean energy targets and 60 percent of the Fortune 100 have goals for renewable energy or greenhouse gas reductions. Through these initiatives, the 53 Fortune 100 companies reporting on climate and energy targets have collectively saved $1.1 billion annually and decreased their annual CO2 emissions by approximately 58.3 million metric tons – the equivalent of retiring 15 coal-fired power plants.

Even better, 85 percent of the Fortune 100 companies whose targets ended in 2012 achieved their goals. And, Fortune 100 industry leaders are cashing in significant savings, with UPS (annually saving more than $200 million), Cisco Systems ($151 million), PepsiCo ($120 million), United Continental ($104 million), and General Motors ($73+ million) posting the greatest improvements to their bottom line.

Given these benefits, it’s no wonder that more than 800 companies, including GM, Apple, and Nike have signed the Climate Declaration, calling tackling climate change “one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.”

These companies see an emerging economic opportunity and are pulling out the stops to capitalize on it, benefitting their own operations and their customers. But companies also know firsthand that seizing these opportunities doesn’t come without challenges. Obstacles, including regional cost-parity issues between renewable energy and subsidized fossil-based energy; internal competition for capital; and inconsistent policies that send mixed signals to companies and investors in renewable energy projects, must be resolved to further accelerate these efforts.

That’s why WWF and the World Resources Institute worked with a number of leading companies – Bloomberg, Facebook, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Novelis, Procter and Gamble, REI, Sprint, and Walmart – to create a set of corporate renewable energy Buyers Principles that could help overcome some of the challenges.  The companies want utilities, utility regulators and renewable energy providers to know what the companies need in order to buy more renewables.

Topping their list are: being able to choose their energy suppliers; simplified and standardized contracts; access to more cost-competitive renewable energy options; and, working collaboratively with market players and utilities to smooth the renewable energy procurement process.

Major players in corporate America aren’t waiting on Congress. Companies are making a significant effort and working with their utilities and other suppliers to get panels on roofs and wind turbines into the ground. But Congress should also be putting the wind at the backs of these corporate leaders, not creating headwinds.

So here is a short list for Congress, with the hopes that November and December might make up for a bit of the lost time:

  • First, provide a bit of certainty: there are a number of incentives for renewable energy and energy efficiency that are currently expired. It’s hard to work with an industry that has to deal with policy that goes through boom-bust cycles manufactured by policymakers every one or two years.
  • Second, provide a bit of equity: renewable energy companies and the companies adopting the technologies are driving down costs and making renewable energy increasingly competitive with traditional sources of energy. We shouldn’t make the effort harder by giving incumbents a leg up. One bipartisan bill, the Master Limited Partnership Parity Act, would be an easy way to help level the playing field; indeed, even the American Petroleum Institute agrees, and has supported the idea of giving renewable energy the same tax treatment that other members get.
  • Finally, let the EPA’s Clean Power Plan do its job. The standards will give states tremendous flexibility to innovate and ramp up policies – like energy efficient standards and renewable portfolio standards – that Corporate America has been vocal in supporting.

As D.C. shuts down for August and the election season, the checklist will remain long. Out on the roofs of retailers solar panels will continue to go up, wind turbines will power manufacturing plants and the grid, and companies will continue to invest in clean energy. For America’s leading companies, making money while tackling one of our biggest challenges is business as usual. The only question left is, when is Congress going to join the party?