Making use of new energy sources and protecting the planet from any further environmental degradation will require new types of partnership between the private sector and non-government organizations. But governments must be prepared to play their part as well. Jonathan Lash looks at how one such public-private partnership, aimed at boosting the use of green power and tackling the problem of climate change, is already bearing fruit

The energy sector in the United States – plagued by unprecedented blackouts, bankruptcies, fluctuating prices and record levels of pollution emissions – would do well to look at making some innovative and sustainable changes.

The US Congress is currently debating an energy bill that could offer a long-term vision for addressing these problems. But it falls far short of the mark, favouring giveaways and pork-barrel projects over pursuing serious solutions.

In the absence of any leadership from Washington, however, a number of corporations have begun to pursue projects that are forging the way towards a more sustainable US energy economy.

It all began three years ago when 10 major US companies agreed to work with us at the World Resources Institute (WRI) to do something about their power emissions.

Those efforts have started to bear fruit. We just announced some of the largest green power purchases in US history – 97 megawatts (MW) in all, enough to power 73,000 homes with electricity from renewable sources.

Walk the talk
The effort started in 2000 when WRI decided that it should walk its talk. We pledged to reduce our net carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2005 (which we have achieved).

We also formed the Green Power Market Development Group, which brought together a set of prominent corporations and challenged them to begin to make similar advances that would help find ways to lower the climate impact of US energy use.

The group – initially Alcoa, Cargill Dow, Delphi, DuPont, General Motors, IBM, Interface, Johnson & Johnson, Kinko’s and Pitney Bowes (with Dow Chemical and Staples joining later) – set the goal of creating 1,000MW of new, cost-competitive green power by 2010. That’s enough electricity to power 750,000 homes or eliminate the need for a coal-fired power plant.

It has not been easy to find the right green power suppliers and products, or to structure workable deals. But we are confident that we have created a solid business model for green power and that partner companies now look for green power when they make energy sourcing decisions.

Promoting the use of green power has taught us that, if done well, good corporate citizenship not only solves environmental and social problems, but also provides business benefits. Some companies are reducing costs; others are reducing their exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices.

And the purchases are starting to make an impact. WRI and its 12 corporate partners have already purchased a total of more than 110MW of green power.

These purchases will reduce approximately 500,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually, equivalent to taking more than 95,000 cars off the road. The following are some of these green power projects.

Dow Chemical and General Motors are collaborating in the world’s largest hydrogen fuel-cell deal in history. Dow will use 500 General Motors fuel cell units at its Freeport, Texas manufacturing facilities to generate up to 35 MW of power. The hydrogen fuel is already generated as a by-product from chemical processing at the manufacturing plant.

Johnson & Johnson is now using more than 11 MW of wind and 1.5MW of solar electricity, making it the largest corporate user of solar photovoltaic panels in the US and one of the largest users of wind power.

General Motors and Interface, the carpeting group, are now using landfill gas as an energy source at their manufacturing facilities, shifting away from their reliance on increasingly expensive natural gas.

Staples, Pitney Bowes and Kinko’s are now purchasing green power for 10% of their annual US electricity consumption.

While we are working to blaze the trail with large corporations, smaller organizations can reap the benefits as well. WRI is a non-profit organization with an annual budget of under $20 million, but we partnered with the owner and manager of our building to purchase green power for our energy-efficient offices.

With additional purchases, we are now one of the first non-profit organizations in the country – and certainly the biggest in metropolitan Washington, DC – that purchases 100% green energy.

The Green Power Market Development Group is creating a model for good corporate citizenship, but it cannot be a substitute for government leadership. The group recently took this message to Capitol Hill, meeting with congressional leaders to discuss climate change and the future of green power.

The private sector cannot solve the problem of climate change by itself. In the US, Congress should set mandatory renewables-friendly carbon dioxide targets.

A cap-and-trade system would create incentives for reductions and guarantee a level playing field for all corporations. Then companies can make smart long-term investments and the green power markets will take off.

Jonathan Lash
Jonathan Lash is president of the World Resources Institute (www.wri.org), an environmental research and policy organization. He is a member of the steering committee of the World Economic Forum’s Global Governance Initiative.