By: Ron Pernick
Back in 2000, when I cofounded Clean Edge, most people I spoke with didn’t yet understand, or in tech parlance “grok,” the clean-tech wave to come. I’ve been fortunate to ride three major tech waves in my business career – telecom, the Internet, and renewable energy – and in each instance I was just enough ahead of the curve that many people didn’t know what I was originally talking about. But as with all major technological shifts, things that once seemed exotic become commonplace. And so it is with clean energy circa 2016.
Perhaps the greatest shift in clean tech over the past 15 years has been the transition from proving economies of scale among early technology disrupters (serving initially small niche markets) to the deployment of renewables among mainstream consumers – with all the financing and development tools that come with mass adoption.
Back in 2000, solar and wind power were still relatively expensive to deploy. The Toyota Prius, the first mass hybrid vehicle, was just being introduced to the U.S. market. Smart grid companies were few and far between (and rarely even using the phrase). Reliable storage for distributed generation was practically non-existent. Utilities that now have 10, 20, and in some cases 50% renewables in their generation mix were closer to zero. And for the most part, commercial, industrial, and residential green buildings at the time weren’t widely deployed or wildly efficient.
Today, things couldn’t be more different. Solar, wind, and natural gas have displaced coal as the generation sources of choice throughout most of the developed world. Last year, solar and wind alone represented approximately 65% of net generation capacity additions in the U.S., and for the first time solar outpaced natural gas for new capacity additions. There are dozens of hybrid and electric vehicle offerings to choose from. And in just about every other technology mentioned above, from smart meters to green, even net-zero, buildings, significant strides have been made.
And as we highlighted in our recent Getting to 100 report a growing number of states, countries, and corporations are aiming for increasingly ambitious clean-energy targets. These include California’s 50% by 2032 renewable-energy mandate, Hawaii’s 100% by 2045 clean-energy goal, and the dozens of corporations, including Nike, Facebook, Google, and Johnson & Johnson, that are now aiming to get 100% of their electrons from renewable sources.
To better track this transition, Clean Edge has just launched its inaugural universe of Corporate Clean Energy Leaders, recognizing corporations that are leading the way in establishing renewable electricity and low-carbon commitments, deploying renewable energy, and investing in clean-tech deployment. These companies are committing to low-carbon, clean energy-powered operations to improve not just the environment, but also their bottom lines.
As more companies shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, the Corporate Clean Energy Leaders universe provides a key barometer of innovation, best practices, and leadership. Thirty-four companies make the inaugural list. They are, in ranked order:
- Walmart (Retail)
- Apple (Tech)
- Autodesk (Software)
- Equinix (Internet Services/Data Centers)
- Alphabet/Google (Tech)
- Intel (Tech)
- Johnson & Johnson (Consumer Products)
- Microsoft (Tech)
- Salesforce (Tech)
- Starbucks (Retail)
- Steelcase (Manufacturing – Furniture)
- Adobe (Tech)
- EMC (Tech)
- Goldman Sachs (Finance)
- Herman Miller (Manufacturing – Furniture)
- Interface (Manufacturing – Carpeting)
- Kohl’s (Retail)
- Rackspace (Internet Services)
- Voya Financial (Finance)
- Whole Foods (Retail/Groceries)
- Biogen (Biotech)
- AT&T (Telecom)
- BD (Medical Supplies)
- Cisco Systems (Tech)
- Facebook (Tech)
- Fedex (Global Courier Services)
- General Motors (Automotive)
- Keurig Green Mountain (Specialty Coffee)
- Nike (Sportswear & Apparel)
- Procter & Gamble (Consumer Products)
- Staples (Retail)
- Target (Retail)
- Verizon (Telecom)
- Workday (Software)
To develop this list, Clean Edge tracked six different indicators, including:
• Investment organizations that have mobilized at least $25 billion in clean-energy/clean-tech/environmental deployment
• Companies that have a stated goal of getting 100% of their total electricity from renewables (for U.S. and/or global operations)
• Companies that get 25% or more of their current electricity from renewables (for U.S. and/or global operations)
• Climate leadership based on active membership in leading global carbon-reduction efforts and executive-level sustainability staffing
While many organizations have historically applied negative screens to track corporate sustainability, fossil-free, and ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) activities, our analysis focused primarily on actions and commitments; in other words, we used mainly positive screens. To make the cut, companies had to meet at least two of the tracked criteria, and meet minimum score thresholds. Companies eligible for inclusion must be U.S.-listed on the NYSE, NASDAQ, or AMEX exchange and have a market cap of at least $1 billion. In alignment with the growing Fossil Free movement, the list excludes corporations whose primary business is the extraction and/or processing of coal or oil.
We plan to update the Corporate Clean Energy Leaders universe twice annually, in January and July. We expect the list to grow as more companies commit to the shift to clean energy, and take increasingly proactive actions.
Obstacles certainly remain, not the least of which is the fight by entrenched interests to slow, or even kill, the growth of renewables. Nevada’s recent regulatory attack on distributed solar is a glaring example, and in my judgment, a significant misstep for a state that has abundant sunlight, is the future home of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant (Tesla’s Gigafactory), and that before this solar-crushing move, employed more people per capita in the solar industry than any other state (a total of 8,764 jobs, according to the Solar Foundation).
But on the positive side, I expect corporations to continue to move toward a cleaner energy mix. The desire for energy choice and resiliency, along with the very real need to ensure pricing stability and meet growing commitments to low-carbon and zero-carbon energy sourcing, means that we will continue to witness significant innovation at the intersection of corporate energy use, the environment, and economics. Companies will likely expand operations and build facilities in places where they can meet these commitments via onsite and offsite clean-energy generation. Let’s face it! This isn’t business as usual – and I believe it represents one of the most disruptive, positive forces accelerating the transition to a low-carbon and, dare I say, fossil-free world.
Ron Pernick is founder and managing director of research and advisory firm Clean Edge and the coauthor of two books on clean-tech business trends and innovation, Clean Tech Nation (HarperCollins, 2012) and The Clean Tech Revolution (HarperCollins, 2007).
The information contained above is provided for informational and educational purposes only, and nothing contained herein should be construed as investment advice, either on behalf of a particular financial product or an overall investment strategy. Clean Edge, Inc., does not make any recommendation to buy or sell any financial product or any representation about the financial condition of any company or fund.