Dozens of Fortune 500 companies are voluntarily investing billions of dollars in new wind and solar projects to power their operations or offset their conventional energy use. But can they use their clout to transform America’s energy grid?
WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump announced on June 1 last year that the United States would exit the Paris climate deal, many of America’s largest corporations said they would honor the agreement anyway, vowing to pursue cleaner energy and cut emissions on their own.
A year later, there’s one area where that pledge is highly visible: renewable energy. Dozens of Fortune 500 companies, from tech giants like Apple, Microsoft and Google to Walmart and General Motors, are voluntarily investing billions of dollars in new wind and solar projects to power their operations or offset their conventional energy use, becoming a major driver of renewable electricity growth in the United States.
“You’re definitely not seeing corporations slow down their appetite for renewables under Trump — if anything, demand continues to grow,” said Malcolm Woolf, senior vice president for policy at Advanced Energy Economy, a clean-energy business group. “And it means that many utilities increasingly have to evolve to satisfy this demand.”
One big question, however, is whether these corporate renewable deals will remain a relatively niche market, adding some wind and solar at the margins but not really making a sizable dent in overall emissions, or whether these companies can use their clout to transform America’s grid and help usher in a new era of low-carbon power.
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Last year in the United States, 19 large corporations announced deals with energy providers to build 2.78 gigawatts worth of wind and solar generating capacity, equal to one-sixth of all of the renewable capacity added nationwide in 2017, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewable Center. (Power companies themselves added much of the rest, often in response to state mandates.)
That trend appears to be accelerating. Corporations have already announced deals for another 2.48 gigawatts of wind and solar in the first half of 2018, as companies like AT&T and Nestlé join the search for cleaner power to fulfill their sustainability goals and take advantage of the rapidly declining cost of renewables.
“We didn’t intend to do this as a statement about Paris, though it has become a statement that we’re definitely still in,” said Brian Janous, general manager of energy at Microsoft, which has so far bought enough wind and solar power to match 50 percent of the demand from its global data centers.
“But with how fast wind and solar prices have fallen, we see this as something that makes financial sense,” he said.
At least 22 companies in the Fortune 500 have committed to buying enough renewable power to match 100 percent of their electricity use in the years ahead. And some analysts say these goals could help spur electric utilities to continue reducing their own emissions even as the Trump administration rolls back Obama-era policies like the Clean Power Plan, a regulation focused on reducing carbon emissions from power plants.
“We think this is a major trend,” said Lisa Wood, vice president of customer solutions at the Edison Electric Institute, a major utility trade group. “Customers are becoming the driver.”
It can often be difficult for a company that isn’t a utility to procure large quantities of renewable electricity on its own. Walmart has installed on-site solar panels on the roofs and parking lots of at least 350 stores, but not every company has that much real estate in play.
Another approach: In deregulated electricity markets, like California or Texas, companies can sign long-term power purchase agreements with energy providers to build new solar or wind facilities. The electricity from these projects typically feeds into the local grid, mixing with electricity from other sources such as coal or natural gas, but the company can legally claim the wind or solar power as its own by buying the renewable energy certificates generated by the project.
Other large corporations are wielding their influence to persuade utilities themselves to add more renewables and offer more options for their customers. In Michigan, GM and Switch, a telecommunications firm, made a deal with their local utility to pay a fixed price for electricity from a new wind farm.
Programs like this, known as “green tariffs,” have recently popped up in more than a dozen states, though they are still often limited to larger companies. But some analysts hope that if green tariffs become more popular, utilities will start offering them to everyone else, too. In Washington state, Puget Sound Energy is piloting a program that would allow smaller customers to buy shares of renewable projects.
“If we can show utilities that the demand is there, that could convince regulators to expand these programs and allow access for smaller companies,” said Rob Threlkeld, global manager for renewable energy at GM, which has set the goal to buy 100 percent renewable power by 2050.
Even that’s only the first step. Industry groups like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance are currently trying to explore other ways that small businesses might be able to band together and voluntarily purchase green power.
Janous of Microsoft, who is engaged in these discussions, says that this aggregation has so far proven to be incredibly challenging. “But if it’s just Microsoft or just the Fortune 500 companies buying renewable power, that’s not going to be transformative,” he said. “We need to go beyond that.”
A few companies, most notably Google, are now wrestling with an even harder question: What if simply buying up large quantities of wind and solar power isn’t enough?
At the end of 2017, Google announced that it had purchased renewable electricity equivalent to all the power used by its data centers and facilities worldwide. Apple achieved a similar benchmark in April, and other companies are hoping to follow suit.
But, as Google itself readily acknowledges, this doesn’t mean that the company is truly powered by 100 percent renewable energy. In many cases, its wind and solar farms operate in different regions (or different countries) than the company’s data centers do. What’s more, the wind and solar farms it has procured don’t provide steady power 24 hours a day, whereas Google’s data centers run around the clock. That means the company is essentially still reliant on fossil fuels to keep the broader grid running.
For its next phase, Google wants to locate all of its clean-energy projects in the same grid regions as its data centers, even though that will mean prodding policymakers in places like Taiwan to overhaul electricity markets and allow companies to make direct purchases. Google is also trying to figure out how to assemble a suite of zero-carbon energy sources that can run 24 hours a day, which may require additional technologies like battery storage, demand-response programs or even nuclear power.
But achieving that goal will take years, and is likely to be far more complicated than simply signing renewable-energy contracts.
“Reaching 100 percent renewable energy is an important milestone, but it’s just the beginning,” said Michael Terrell, head of energy-market strategy at Google. “We have to keep our eyes on the ultimate prize, which is to enable carbon-free power in every hour of every day.”