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Commit!Forum Sponsored Series


Beyond Rooftop Solar: How a 170-Year-Old Gas Company Stays Modern with Renewables

By Tina Casey

COMMIT!Forum will convene hundreds of corporate social responsibility leaders and CEOs from CR Magazine’s annual 100 Best Corporate Citizens ranking.  The event includes a pre-conference workshop on integrated CSR and sustainability reporting from BrownFlynn.  Join MGM's Chief Diversity and CR Officer Phyllis James, Terracycle CEO Tom Szaky, Aman Singh, editor in chief of Futerra, and Icema Gibbs, head of CSR at JetBlue Airways. More information here

The rooftop solar market has exploded in recent years, enabling individual homeowners and small businesses to claim their turf in the transition to renewable energy. However, rooftop solar is just one of a growing number of opportunities for electricity customers to wean themselves from fossil fuels.

The Washington, D.C.-based energy-holding company WGL (formerly Washington Gas Light) is a case in point. WGL has 170-year-old roots as a natural gas provider, but it is rapidly transitioning into renewables and other sustainability initiatives.

Versatility is the key to clean energy

WGL's long experience in natural gas has provided its corporate culture with a window into the versatility of non-coal fuels.

When WGL started up in 1848, street lighting was the primary market for natural gas. Though lighting faded out of the picture after the electric light bulb was invented, gas eventually beat out coal in other sectors including heating and cooling for homes and other buildings, cooking, numerous industrial processes, electricity generation, and vehicle fuel (in the form of compressed natural gas).

Now that low-cost wind and solar are in the marketplace, renewable-sourced electricity is beginning to take the place once occupied by natural gas, with a similarly broad range of applications – including vehicles.

Beyond rooftop solar: WGL and renewable energy

Considering WGL's history, it's no surprise to see the company leverage the versatility of renewable energy to steer its customers toward wind as well as rooftop solar.

In 1988, long before the Obama administration began ramping up federal investment in renewable energy, WGL organized a subdivision dedicated to energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Now under the name WGL Energy, this branch of the company embraces both rooftop solar and its alternatives.

To help sell customers on wind power, WGL Energy notes that access to clean power can involve social benefits beyond the environmental benefits.

For example, WGL Energy's National WindPower program offers residential customers in the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania the option to source electricity from remote wind farms as far away as Texas, while assisting economic development in rural communities:

It's an easy, affordable way to help improve air quality and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Your purchase also supports the U.S. economy – wind farms support jobs in communities throughout the states where they are located.

Residential customers in Washington, Delaware, and Maryland who are more interested in acting locally can enroll in WGL Energy's CleanSteps WindPower program, which focuses on electricity sourced from wind farms in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other nearby states:
It's an easy, cost-effective way for you to help improve regional air quality and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Your purchase also supports the regional economy – wind farms support jobs in communities throughout the states where they are located.

WGL Energy also has a package designed to appeal to home-state loyalties. The company's PA WindPower program is exclusively for residential customers in Pennsylvania, with electricity sourced only from wind farms within the state.

An all-of-the-above renewable energy strategy

While going full speed ahead on its remotely sourced energy programs, WGL Energy also offers a rooftop solar program in partnership with rooftop leader SolarCity.

Interestingly, the rooftop solar sector does not appear to offer WGL Energy the kind of social benefit marketing opportunities afforded by its wind programs.

In contrast to the direct collective good leveraged by wind power, the company lists general environmental benefits as well as the financial incentives for individuals:

• Clean, emissions-free energy that improves the environment
• Predictable electricity prices for 20 or more years
• The potential to lower your electricity bills
• A $100 VISA Award Card from WGL Energy after completion of your solar installation

That's nothing to sneeze at, but it may indicate that rooftop solar could be at a disadvantage over the long run. Rooftop solar costs are dropping, but the cost of wind energy is also dropping.

In addition, remote wind energy is potentially available to every electricity customer, as is remote solar. In comparison, rooftop solar has limited application.

More renewable energy choices for business

As with its residential customers, WGL Energy offers a large suite of choices to its commercial customers. The appeal to the bottom line is a firm one for wind programs tailored to large and small businesses:
You'll increase your competitive advantage and enhance your brand while sending a powerful message to your customers, employees and stakeholders.

WGL Energy has also partnered in large scale on-site solar installations and it offers a remote solar option to customers. Remote solar customers get a win-win – they get partial ownership status without the headaches:
As a co-branded stakeholder of the solar facility, your direct involvement in the growth of renewable energy will be highly visible and demonstrable—without taking on the maintenance or upfront financing of an onsite operation.

Rounding out the commercial offerings are renewable energy credits for hydro, wind and solar.

Way beyond rooftop solar

As for WGL Energy's parent company, WGL released a sustainability report earlier this year indicating additional moves into renewable energy.

The company lists an ambitious target for 2025 for its internal operations as well as its customers:

By 2025, WGL plans to achieve carbon neutral fleet and facilities operations, reduce emission intensity of its natural gas distribution system by 38 percent (against a 2008 baseline), and enable customers to avoid 18 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

That may seem like a stretch, but WGL is already four years ahead of its 2020 goal, having set it in 2012 and achieving it in 2016.

That track record indicates the involvement of a key element in corporate sustainability, strong leadership from the top.

In the case of WGL, the top is chairman and CEO Terry D. McAllister, who earlier this summer was named a finalist for CR Magazine's prestigious responsibility and lifetime achievement awards, to be presented in October as part of the 2017 COMMIT!Forum.

In accepting the recognition, McAllister emphasized setting high goals:

...We continue to drive sustainable clean energy business practices and programs to enhance the communities where we operate - that means encouraging the company to set stretch targets that push ourselves to aim higher with bold innovation and fresh thinking to exceed expectations.

To achieve the 2025 goal, WGL plans a massive investment in energy efficiency as well as renewable energy:
...The target is based on our expansion of customer energy efficiency programs at the utility, and our current investment of over $500 million in energy efficient installations and a planned investment of an additional $500 million at WGL Energy, for a combined investment of over $1 billion by 2025.

Of interest to fuel cell fans, WGL customers can also take advantage of a fuel cell option. The company first tested the fuel cell waters in 2012 with the installation of an "Energy Server" in partnership with the fuel cell company Bloom Energy.

Though WGL's Bloom fuel cell was installed with natural gas as a fuel source, Bloom Energy has a track record of pairing its fuel cells with renewable biogas.

Fuel cells powered by renewable hydrogen are also emerging into the commercial marketplace, so it's possible that WGL customers may some day have a chance to dip into the hydrogen economy of the future.

Image (screenshot): WGL Energy via YouTube.

Tina Casey headshot

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.

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