Buy Renewables Right: 3 Things Companies Can Do to Promote a Clean and Green Future
The global transition to clean energy must happen fast to meet climate goals. This looks more possible than ever. Governments and companies are making ambitious commitments to renewable energy, and solar and wind energy prices continue to fall dramatically. We are now at the beginning of the next big challenge—an enormous global buildout of renewable energy infrastructure.
At least a nine-fold increase in renewable energy is needed to meet the Paris Agreement emission reduction goals. But renewable energy requires a lot of land—especially for the onshore wind and utility-scale solar installations that are expected to make up the vast majority of new energy investments. In the United States, for example, achieving deep decarbonization by 2050 will require a land area potentially as large as Arizona, which raises the potential for negative impacts to communities and natural habitats. We need a smart buildout approach that avoids conflicts or else our renewable energy buildout could be stalled by the land-use challenges.
Corporate renewable energy buyers are uniquely positioned to address this issue. The Nature Conservancy and National Audubon Society are teaming up under a new initiative, “Buy Renewables Right,” to work with leading companies in developing renewable energy buying solutions that meet goals for climate, nature and communities. Here are three things companies can do to help drive a clean and green transition:
1. Lead the Market. Promote a faster, cheaper, and smarter renewable energy buildout
More than 250 companies have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their electricity consumption from renewable energy, including some of the largest companies in the world. In the United States, corporate buyers contracted nearly 10 gigawatts of new renewable generation in 2019—a year in which the U.S. increased its total renewable energy installed capacity by 18 gigawatts. The decisions that companies make in buying renewable energy can lead the market and shape how the buildout hits the ground.
To meet ambitious renewable energy goals, corporate buyers need renewable energy to be developed rapidly. But to go fast the buildout will need to go smart—avoiding impacts to wildlife habitat and conflicts with communities. When wind and solar projects avoid these problems, they are approved faster and at a lower cost. For example, a study of solar projects finds that permitting can be three times faster (13 vs. 35 months) and project costs 7 to 14 percent lower when projects are sited in areas of low biodiversity value. On the other hand, the National Renewable Energy Lab projects that, if unaddressed, concerns over wind siting related to wildlife, public engagement, and other factors could increase costs and decrease wind capacity by 14 percent by 2030 and 28 percent by 2050.
2. Buy the Best: Maximize the positive impact of renewable energy buying decisions
Not all renewable energy is created equal. Renewable energy projects with the same transactional profile for cost and quantity can have very different impacts. Some projects displace more fossil fuel emissions than others, some are built in places that have greater impacts on wildlife habitat, and some provide more benefits for local communities and social equity. Given these important considerations, how can companies buy renewable energy from the “best” projects to maximize the positive impact of their transition to renewable energy?
To address this question, Salesforce, a large cloud-based software company, worked with The Nature Conservancy and several partners to develop a holistic approach to renewable energy buying decisions—More than a Megawatt: Embedding Social and Environmental Impact in the Renewable Energy Procurement Process. Salesforce is using this procurement approach in purchasing renewable energy to meet its 100 percent renewable energy commitment for global operations by 2022. As companies around the world commit to renewable energy, adopting a more holistic approach to buying decisions can ensure renewable energy purchases have the greatest positive impact for climate, nature and communities.
3. Protect Nature. Promote a buildout that avoids biodiversity impacts and carbon storage losses
The climate and biodiversity crises must be faced together. When forests and other natural areas are converted for development, it impacts wildlife and releases the carbon naturally stored in these habitats—a step backwards on climate. Potential impacts from wind energy development include wildlife collisions with wind turbines, habitat loss and degradation, and fragmentation of large habitat blocks into smaller segments that may not support sensitive species. Utility-scale solar projects can also have significant habitat impacts where there is a need to clear forests and vegetation across large areas of land.
The good news is we don’t need to sacrifice important habitat and carbon storage to rapidly develop renewable energy. The world has an abundance of low-impact lands with high renewable energy development potential—more than enough by many multiples to meet the world’s renewable energy needs. Companies can advance goals for climate and biodiversity simultaneously by committing to not buy renewable energy from projects that impact important natural areas. Conserving these places is a win-win for climate and nature.
Companies can lead the way to a clean and green future by buying renewables right. The world is just starting down the road of what will be a rapid and massive buildout of renewable energy. Now is the time to get the steering right to advance goals for climate, nature and communities.