There they go again. Last year, major U.S. corporations went toe-to-toe with utilities in the clean power market by snapping up a total of 3 gigawatts in clean-energy buys, and this year they have come roaring back in force.
Upwards of 60 companies hooked up with four nonprofits to launch the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, pledging to invest in 60 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025.
Our capitalist overlords heart clean power
To grasp the significance of this shift in the clean-power marketplace, consider that until recent years utilities held a virtual monopoly on purchasing and deploying electricity for distribution to consumers.
With the advent of commercial-scale wind and solar energy, a sea change has taken place. Aside from burnishing their green profile, forward-looking companies are jumping into the clean-power market because renewable sources provide them with long-term price stability and the certainty of a domestic supply.
These are critical factors as the world moves inexorably toward a low-carbon economy in which the true costs of fossil fuels are exposed to the market.
Adding to the attraction is a steep decline in the cost of renewable energy as the technology becomes more efficient. Improvements in manufacturing and installation efficiencies also contribute to the downward slide.
In the U.S., major companies aren't waiting for local utilities to invest in clean power. In 2014, individual companies accounted for 1.2 gigawatts of renewable energy deployment. Within the first 10 months of 2015, corporate clean-energy buys had already topped that figure to arrive at the year's total of 3 gigawatts.
The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA) pledge was introduced last week. It represents the ambitious goal of more than doubling the 3 gigawatt mark, on average, each year for a total of 60 gigawatts by 2025.
The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance
Major U.S. companies already lined up alongside President Barack Obama in support of the Clean Power Plan, and REBA amps up those efforts to increase the buying power of the corporate sector.
The effort leverages the Business Renewables Center of the Rocky Mountain Institute, partnering with the organizations Business for Social Responsibility, the World Resources Institute and the World Wildlife Fund.
The main goal is to combine corporate purchasing power in order to send strong, coordinated messages about clean power to energy markets and utilities.
On the technology and deployment end, REBA members will network with energy providers and related sectors to develop solutions, particularly in the area of scalable, distributed energy.
Clean tech and high tech: Perfect together
One major focus of REBA's efforts will be to enable its members to procure more clean power to run data centers.
To hammer home that point, the Rocky Mountain Institute tapped REBA members Facebook and Microsoft to voice the initiative's mission.
Microsoft's director of energy strategy, Brian Janous, emphasized that part of REBA's mission is a corporate "good neighbor" effort that will bring clean power to more consumers:
" ... We are committed not only to increasing our purchase of green power, but also to working with new partners to bring even more renewable energy onto the grid where we do business," Janous said.
Facebook chose to focus on the collaborative aspect of the new initiative, as described by director of sustainability, Bill Weihl:
" ... We know from our experience with initiatives like the Open Compute Project that openness and collaboration help everyone move faster, and we're excited to work with the other founding members of REBA to help green the grid. Together we will all have a much greater impact," Weihl said.
If this is starting to sound familiar, consider that collaboration and public-private partnerships are a hallmark of the Obama administration's clean-technology initiatives, such as Better Buildings for energy efficiency, EV Everywhere for affordable electric vehicles and the Rooftop Challenge for low-cost, distributed solar power.
Collaborative problem-solving and patent sharing on a global scale is also happening in other sectors, as the corporate world transitions to new low-carbon, low-impact products and means of production.
In addition to the high-tech sector, REBA members represent practically every other major field, including retail (Target, Walmart), manufacturing (3M, Adidas), food (Kellogg, Starbucks) and hospitality (Starwood, Hilton).
Shifting the clean power paradigm
Part of REBA's aim is to help companies overcome regulatory obstacles and political shenanigans.
Structural barriers posed by utility companies are also an issue, but some utilities are adapting faster than others. In the "faster" category is REBA member Dominion Virginia Power. Company VP Becky Merritt describes how the partnership provides Dominion with a more accurate, actionable representation of the need of energy consumers:
"[We] ... deem their partnership invaluable in helping us respond to the renewable needs of our customers. Their transparent discussion forums have enabled win-win renewable solutions, which is exactly what we are all striving for."
Writer Krysti Shallenberger of Utility Dive sat in on a conference call with REBA members last week, and she reports that the partnership could provide non-member utilities with a more adaptive clean power toolkit.
Janous, for example, said that Microsoft is looking to REBA as a platform for partnering with utilities to aggregate projects, so that smaller companies can get easier access to renewable energy.
One of the main problems to resolve is how to avoid shifting costs onto other consumers in the grid, and some utilities are already finding solutions. Shallengerber cites the "Green Source Rider" corporate renewable energy programs from Duke Energy and NV Energy.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.