Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sustainability Reporting for Renewable Energy Companies

This is a rare CSR Reporting Blog guest post. I am usually a bit picky about guest posts. Very picky, in fact.  But in this case, I have made an exception, because my guest is not really a guest. He's more like family, in a business sense, that is. Joshua Basofin is the newest member of Beyond Business, the little sustainability consulting firm that makes a BIG impact.

Joshua Basofin has worked in the environmental field for over ten years as an attorney, sustainability expert and writer. Most recently he was the California Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. In that capacity, he partnered with businesses and government agencies to reduce impacts on wildlife and natural resources. He was also the Freshwater Program Manager for Environment Now. Joshua holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Environmental Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his law degree, with honors, from Chicago-Kent College of Law. While in law school, he earned a certificate from the Program in Environmental and Energy Law and served as President of the Environmental Law Society.

Joshua will be expanding our portfolio of environmental sustainability services to corporations around the world, including our current clients, with an offering which includes environmental strategy development; creation of policies, performance and procedures; environmental mapping and auditing; environmental risk assessment; carbon reduction strategies and carbon footprinting; environmental training; Green Office and Green Team support;  environmental data-collection for Sustainability Reporting and research and benchmarking in different environmental disciplines and for Sustainability Reporting.  Joshua has particular expertise in the renewable energy sector and will be serving clients in this fast-growing industry.

Here is Joshua's inaugural post:

Green from the Ground Up: Sustainability Reporting for Renewable Energy Companies

Should companies whose services make the environment cleaner publish Sustainability Reports?

The answer is a resounding YES! In addition to assisting users of energy to manage their carbon footprint through the supply of clean energy products and infrastructures, renewable energy companies, in order to assure their own sustainability, must manage their own impacts, reduce their own footprint and demonstrate social and environmental accountability. A few renewable energy companies have risen to that challenge.

Carbon emissions are at unprecedented levels and the scientific community has long reached consensus that climate change will affect our planet in drastic ways. Renewable energy companies have responded by developing solar and wind facilities. These clean energy sources help meet increasing demand and will soon replace coal, oil and natural gas generators.

Solar companies in particular are increasingly ramping up production on photovoltaic and concentrated solar power systems. Governments eager to assist this development have provided subsidies and expanded renewable energy transmission grids. With a little innovation and strategic planning, more communities around the world will receive their energy from renewable sources. But the industry faces sustainability challenges just like any other. And Sustainability Reporting is vital to its success.

For example, solar companies have submitted over 200 applications to build facilities in California’s Mojave Desert. On the one hand, the Mojave is a vast sun-drenched area, stretching across 29 million acres. It has the potential to accommodate much of this solar traffic. On the other hand, it is an intact and fragile ecosystem, providing habitat for rare plants and animals. The Mojave’s water reserves are located in scarce underground aquifers. And it is riddled with Native American and other cultural artifacts. The solar companies that carved out sites (some stretching more than 6,000 acres) in the Mojave must address these resource issues.

Additionally, solar companies face challenges in greening their supply chains. Tremendous amounts of energy, water and raw materials are used in manufacturing and building solar infrastructure. During operation, maintenance crews must frequently wash panels or mirrors to ensure maximum effectiveness. That means a lot of water. And workers use large machinery that disturbs air quality and erodes soil.

One solar company that has embraced the task of creating a sustainability strategy is SunPower Corporation. Its California Valley Solar Ranch is currently being constructed on nearly 2,000 acres of land in California’s Carrizo Plain. SunPower is an industry leader and commands much of the U.S. market share. Thus, it is no surprise that SunPower was the first of its peers to publish a first Sustainability Report for the fiscal year 2010/2011.
The report, entitled “Sustainability by Design”, is comprehensive. It lays out concrete goals in the areas of products, operations, people and communities. Under the products category, SunPower puts forward an innovative LEED-certified “poly to panel” concept to improve transparency in the supply chain and ensure that all suppliers of raw materials adhere to the same sustainability principles. This will be encompassed in an industry-wide Code of Conduct  under development in collaboration with the Solar Energy Industries Association,  covering the following categories:
  • Health and safety
  • Labor
  • Ethics
  • Environment
  • Management systems
Additionally, SunPower’s “Return, Reuse, Recycle” program guarantees that solar panels will not go to a landfill after their life cycle (25 years or more) has ended. This is a great development in curbing the company’s waste stream.

SunPower tackles resource issues head on. The report affirms a commitment to minimizing the company’s footprint, including ecological impacts like those in the Mojave Desert mentioned earlier. The company halved water use at five key facilities between 2007 and 2010 and targets to reduce this even further.  SunPower also commits to responsibly treating discharges resulting from chemical use.

Suntech, another solar energy leader and the world's largest producer of solar panels, with 20,000 employees, also published a first Sustainability Report recently. It deserves an honorary mention. Of particular interest is Suntech’s whopping 87% reduction in water use from 2002 to 2010 as well as a 90% electricity consumption reduction per MW of cell production in SunTech's largest facility in China between 2002 and 2010.

Future clean energy - photo reproduced from Suntech's Sustainability Report

Both SunPower and Suntech used the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Framework as a baseline for information disclosure -  SunPower  references the GRI, while Suntech includes a partial GRI Index without declaring an Application Level (10 indicators are reported on).

As renewable energy markets grow (according to SunPower, worldwide solar capacity reached 23 GW in 2009, the equivalent capacity of more than 40 coal-fired power plants),  regulators and the public will scrutinize renewable energy generators more and more. The industry provides a great service by replacing oil and coal dinosaurs and offsetting carbon emissions. But that is not a “get out of jail free card” on other important areas of sustainability. When a solar company’s “cradle to grave” operation has minimal impacts, it will truly be green.

Kudos to SunPower and Suntech for starting what hopefully will be more than an single ray of sunshine in the rapidly expanding solar market.


Of course, Joshua might have made a cone award to Sunpower and Suntech, but he's not (yet) been converted to ice cream (which is not (yet) a condition of hiring at Beyond Business).

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices  Contact me via   on Twitter or via my business website  (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

1 comment:

Solar Installation Monmouth County NJ said...

I agree, Renewable energy is not getting enough credit as it deserves in this world. We need it to be public, like you said, displays at fairs, communities should try to work together to finance and figure out a way to supply for their town. With solar installations, of course.

-Sharone Tal

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