The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a membership association for large-scale energy buyers focused on procuring renewables, recently released its Deal Tracker. The report names the top renewable energy buyers for 2019, totaling 9.33 gigawatts of renewable energy bought in the U.S. For reference, the U.S. is expected to add 9.3 GW of natural gas generating capacity in 2020.
The top five spots on the tracker are all taken by technology companies, with Facebook landing at No. 1, followed by Google. This is no surprise, as technology companies require energy-intensive data centers to make their operations possible. As the tech sector grows, pressure to increase the efficiency of the data centers is building, and the next step is purchasing more renewable energy to power them.
The listed tech companies all have significant sustainability plans, but an investment in renewable energy, in particular, can help address another underlying issue: Without renewables that have a low impact on water supplies, such as wind and solar photovoltaics, any energy used is generated by fossil fuel- or nuclear-powered electricity, which are incredibly water-intensive. Many of these massive data centers are located in water-stressed areas like California and Texas and every state in between. Considering how energy has a high demand on water supplies, these investments in technologies such as wind and solar power are good long-term business strategies.
Some interesting companies made an appearance in the second half of the tracker. McDonald’s shows up for the first time, and Honda beats out Ford, which comes in at No. 17.
With transportation being the top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., Honda has emerged as an industry leader in this space. While most attention is focused on the growing electric vehicle space, there are still plenty of internal combustion engine cars on the road, and Honda’s place on this tracker and other sustainability lists will hopefully push other automakers to improve their efforts to deploy renewables as well.
The entry of McDonald’s into the renewable energy space is relatively recent: 2019 marked its first major purchase as part of a larger effort to reduce emissions throughout the value chain as part of its commitment to the Science-Based Targets initiative. The company set a target in line with a 2 degrees Celsius reduction, pledging to cut GHGs by 36 in restaurants and offices and 31 percent in the supply chain by the end of this year, compared to a 2015 baseline. It is the first restaurant chain to make such a bold pledge. And considering its target was set in 2018, coming in at No. 9 in the tracker is a significant accomplishment for McDonald’s.
To the average consumer, it may make sense for big technology companies to be on board with renewables. But that same consumer may not consider that fast-food or car companies would need to do the same. These sectors do not have as straight a shot to emissions reductions as data centers, with their high energy demand. Restaurant chains have to consider upstream and downstream factors, including ingredients such as beef, in addition to all that packaging and the effects of their restaurant operations. Meanwhile, auto manufacturers not only have to consider the energy demands of their manufacturing and dealers, but also the carbon and water footprint of all the materials needed to build a car.
Companies should be vying to beat each other to the top of the renewable energy lists and trackers, but sustainability is a multi-faceted issue. A leader from one industry should encourage others to follow suit. In an opt-in business culture, more examples of bold climate action like the ones mentioned by the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance are needed.
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Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.