The Latest Reports: Solar Utilities, Carbon Offsets, and the Emperor's New Clothes

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by: Joel Makower

The spring rains have yielded a bumper crop of new reports on the business of green. I’ve been a bit behind in fielding them, given my travels and last week’s highly successful Greener by Design conference. Here are five of the latest:

  • My colleagues at Clean Edge have just released the Utility Solar Assessment (USA) Study, making the case that solar power has the potential to reach cost parity with retail-electricity rates in most regions of the U.S. in less than a decade — but only if electric utilities step up to the plate. The free report (Download — PDF), published in partnership with Co-op America, provides a robust roadmap for electric utilities to accelerate the growth of solar energy. Incorporating the latest technology, market, and policy breakthroughs, and interviews with key industry players and experts, it shows how a coordinated effort among regulators, the solar industry, and utilities can enable solar to reach 10 percent of U.S. electricity generation by 2025. At present, the combination of solar photovoltaics (rooftop systems turning sunlight into electricity) and concentrating solar power (utility-scale installations that harness sunlight to create steam to run generators) contribute only 0.06% of total U.S. electricity generation.

    The USA study also includes a to-do list for three key stakeholders: utilities, solar companies, and policymakers. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of work cut out for everyone.

  • Clean Air-Cool Planet and Forum for the Future have just published Getting to Zero: Defining Corporate Climate Neutrality  (Download — PDF), a joint project "developed in the absence of any hard and fast standards for climate neutrality, and out of growing concern that the real value of the concept could be lost in a stream of inflated claims."

    The challenge of defining "carbon neutral" has long been problematic, as I’ve frequently noted (see here and here, for example). For example, there’s no agreed-upon definition of how much of a company’s carbon footprint it needs to offset (is it responsible for the gasoline that fueled the chain saw that cut down the tree that created the paper packaging for the company’s widget?) or what’s needed to offset it (can the company simply write a check to plant trees somewhere, or does it have to do more?).

    Getting to Zero attempts to make sense of all this, laying out the boundaries, providing definitions, and recommending company approaches. Among the recommendations:

    Embrace a stretching boundary. The key tension surrounding any claim of neutrality remains reconciling the absolute nature of the claim — implying zero net impact — with a practical boundary-setting process. In the spirit of the term, we recommend that companies accept that claiming neutrality implies some responsibility to consider and address broader value-chain emissions. This is not to suggest that companies accept legal responsibility for the direct emissions of others, but rather that indirect emissions be explicitly considered as part of the neutrality process.

    This may seem overly geeky to some, but it’s nothing less than Gospel to those who have been grappling with such issues, and CACP and the Forum deserve our thanks for having placed a stake in the ground on this important topic.

  • Another Forum for the Future report, "leader business 2.0: hallmarks of sustainable performance" (yes, all lower case, per Brit style), which claims to showcase "today’s best examples of business and sustainability." The free report (Download) offers a framework that can help businesses approach sustainability in a systematic way, by separating out ten areas of general business activity — what the authors call "hallmarks": vision and strategy, governance and embedding, products and services, marketing, supply chain, external affairs, stakeholders, environment, community, and reporting.

    It’s a fairly typical list — albeit, with a U.K. perspective — and the report offers brief case studies for each of the ten categories.

  • Arthur D. Little has published a brief paper on "Sustainable Performance," subtitled "A Case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?" The free report (Download — PDF — registration required) argues that, by continuing to focus on traditional business objectives and paying little more than lip service to environmental issues, many companies risk losing out on the opportunities presented by sustainability — "not least the opportunity to run a more competitive business and to attract the attention of investors who increasingly recognize environmental performance as an indicator of long-term success."

    ADL’s survey of 99 publicly listed, large Nordic companies — widely regarded as among the most environmentally responsible of corporate citizens — found some surprising things, for example, that sustainability reporting is varied and not standardized and, as a result, not transparent; that there is little comparability even within industries, since companies tend to focus on their own, absolute measures; that few companies have quantified targets, or relate targets for improved sustainability to business objectives; and that few companies have clearly articulated strategies, and even fewer follow up or report on how they perform against their own targets.

    The report offers sage advice for companies in any region:

    Any company that wants to realise the opportunities presented by sustainability needs to develop an effective strategy for sustainable business development and performance reporting. This includes companies that may be tempted to complacency by an existing reputation for good corporate citizenship. Where some form of environmental reporting is already in place, companies need consider whether they really do meet the standards of international best practice, whether there are still opportunities for improvement, and what they can do to catch up with the world leaders in sustainability and environmental reporting.

  • The Conference Board has published a paper in its Executive Action series, Company Approaches to Green Products and Services: What’s Working and What’s Not. Unfortunately, the document is available only to Conference Board members, but they’ve been nice enough to share a copy with me, so I’ll provide some highlights.

    In essence, the 10-page report, written by Bill Blackburn, a Conference Board Senior Research Fellow, is an up-to-date primer on green products, from basic definitions to explanations of life cycles to the basics of green marketing. Blackburn knows from where he speaks: The former head of environment at Baxter International, he is author of The Sustainability Handbook, an authoritative reference for environmental managers. Blackburn’s insights are complemented by the findings of a research panel, whose members include Aveda, Coca-Cola, J.C. Penney, Xerox, and others.

    Among the "best practices" Blackburn suggests:

    • Train and periodically update the company’s design and marketing workforce, including their management, on the social and environmental issues and trends that are relevant to the company and the type of products and services it offers.
    • Consider the issues and trends relevant to suppliers, wholesale customers and end consumer.
    • Support two-way communications to ensure marketing reconnaissance and feedback from other key stakeholders and information sources are shared.
    • Stay up to date on green product and service successes and failures of other companies, especially peers.
    • Inventory current products and services to see which ones may be considered green.
    • Identify potential areas where developing new green products or services might be productive; involve outside experts and/or new personnel to help stimulate the discussion.
    • Periodically evaluate your progress in greening and promoting your products and services, and how well they stack up against the competition.

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