Google, GM launch group focused on expanding renewable energy purchasing

Google, General Motors and other big-name companies announced a new venture on Thursday that aims to make it easier for businesses to get their hands on clean energy.

Driven by consumer calls for renewable energy use as the price of wind and solar continues to drop, businesses are increasingly looking for ways to go green. A new trade association assembled by industry giants including Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, Walmart and Disney, hopes to make that goal easy to achieve.

The group, called the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA), aims to work toward a zero-carbon future, where every organization has the ability to offset as much of their energy use as it desires from renewable sources.

With over 200 members, REBA is comprised of the largest group of clean energy buyers in the United States. By helping other businesses become better positioned to purchase renewable energy, board members say they hope to help unlock the marketplace and, eventually, transition to a completely zero-carbon energy future.

“At a very fundamental level our theory of change is that we can leverage the markets and buyers have a unique role in the markets to drive the renewable energy future,” said Miranda Ballentine, REBA CEO.

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The idea for the trade association started five years ago, when a dozen company heads in a meeting began discussing obstacles to obtaining often limited renewable energy options in the marketplace.

“How do we really scale up renewables across a diverse sector? How do we think about scaling this up beyond just a few companies that have done on site procurement?,” Rob Threlkeld, global manager for renewable energy at General Motors, said of the meeting.

“It really morphed out of planting a seed in terms of, 'How to do we think about this in a much more diverse manner? How is technology really adapting to all of that?’ ”

It turned out that multiple companies had the same issues finding renewable energy sources to meet their goals.

“We have a commitment to match 100 percent of our energy purchases with renewable energy. We’re the world’s largest non-utility buyer of renewable energy,” said Michael Terrell, head of energy market development at Google.

“But it was incredibly challenging to do that and we faced lots of challenges trying to buy energy for our business and found others do too. The goal was to come together in a collaborative effort and really look for ways to break down barriers and make access for renewable energy ubiquitous for everybody.”

Threlkeld said company heads also realized they could play a role in driving the market toward creating more clean energy sources.

“The timing is really now to scale it to the next level,” Threlkeld said. “The utility sector and transportation sector are changing more in the next few years than you saw in the past 100 years. I think a lot of companies are aligning to similar thoughts. Cost and technology are coming to the point where it’s the right thing to do on the business perspective and sustainably as well.”

REBA aims to drive the generation of 60 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025 for its buyers. The association is also looking to scale up, with more corporate energy buyers looking to use renewable energy.

The ideas of the trade association are largely driven by science linking greenhouse gas emissions to climate change. The businesses within the company have acknowledged that industry is one of the biggest polluters.

A report released earlier this week from Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan think tank, found that solar and wind power are on track to overtake coal as cost-effective energy sources. According to the analysis, economics alone played the biggest role in driving U.S. consumer energy use towards renewable sources, driving down the cost of wind and solar.

As it stands, local wind and solar could replace nearly 74 percent of the U.S. coal fleet today and still save customers money, the report found.

The findings are in line with what REBA founders say they’ve encountered themselves when opting to buy renewable energy for their companies.

As renewable energy becomes more affordable, REBA founders say they think more businesses will continue to opt to choose clean energy over fossil fuels.

“In many markets you can’t just call up your energy provider and say, 'Give me the clean energy solution.’ It’s not how the system works. So we really have to find ways to change that,” said Terrell.

“Cost is not really the issue anymore. It’s really access.”