Now in its third edition, the growing Environmental Leader Conference brought together a fantastic group of industry thought leaders, energy and sustainability executives and solution providers for three days of discussion on best practices to help push our industry forward.
Aside from celebrating awards for my inspiring colleagues, Bennett Fisher and Lani Aviado, as well as ENGIE Storage’s Project of the Year award for the largest storage installation Massachusetts, the conference gave me new perspective about what sustainable resource management success looks like and the factors that will enable it.
Here are three themes that emerged for me during the conference that were not all explicitly discussed, but came across loud and clear after reflecting on what I heard.
1. Just like Snowflakes, No Two Sustainability Strategies are Alike
Perhaps the middle of spring isn’t the best time for a winter analogy, but I left the conference with the resounding feeling that sustainable resource planning is different for each individual corporation.
And it can be no other way.
This is not a question of one company being more mature in their thinking or progressive with their goals than another. Site portfolio, building use types, industry dynamics, relationships with supply chains and many other factors all have massive impacts on what energy and sustainability leaders are contemplating day in and day out.
Claudia Capitini of Arrow Electronics discussed how product companies have the complex task of understanding the journey of each component that goes into its products, and once those products are at end of life, how to make as much of those devices reusable as possible.
For some of those businesses that’s easier than others. Imagine if you produced fiber optic cable that was used, say, in far flung data centers across the globe, as was the case with one audience member wondering how to economically reuse their technology components. That’s a pretty big challenge.
The debate about the role of renewable energy credits in sustainability strategies brought the need for differing strategies and viewpoints to light as well. For a company like Cisco with ultra-high energy intensity sites, there is no simply feasible way to hit his carbon goals without RECs due to real estate constraints. For Cisco and many others, RECs are not an ‘either / or’ but an ‘and’ when it comes to reducing carbon footprints.
2. The Only Constant is Change
While good sustainability strategy and planning is critical for success, there’s just one problem: in the real-world, actual business happens. Most companies are in dynamic, competitive industries that are constantly transforming.
One question posed several times during the conference was, ‘should businesses set reduction goals in absolute or intensity terms?’ Xanterra VP of Sustainability Catherine Greener talked how Xanterra’s company decisions, such as getting into the fuel-intense cruise business, impacts her goal setting strategy. This type of dramatic shift in the Xanterra portfolio means that measuring success on a locational basis, rather than portfolio-wide absolute measures, best aligns with the company’s overall strategy.
Other organizations also realize growth is a given, and are working back from there. Philippe Lacamp, senior vice president of Cathay Pacific Airlines, discussed how the airline industry, whose emissions account for 2% of the global total today and are only expected to increase significantly, is taking the bold step to be carbon growth neutral by 2020. Achieving this type of ‘business growth, carbon flat’ goal is much more feasible through collective action.
Energy pricing and technology change also play a major role in outcomes. Changing energy costs can impact savings on-the-fly and battery storage costs continue to fall, for example, so multiple speakers suggested companies must dynamically track this information and consider how long of a view to take on pursuing certain projects.
3. The Interface Matters… A Lot
No one technology (that is commercially available today, anyway) is going to be the silver bullet. Managing resources sustainably requires an ecosystem and, as Angela Ferrante of Sparkfund discussed, new business models – a form of an industry interface – can be a huge activator to scale energy efficiency.
Although said in different ways, ‘the interface’ came up over and over during the conference. In thinking about how manufacturers need to incorporate sustainability thinking into the design phase, Devan Tracy of Lockheed Martin showed the picture of a toilet with a simple option – full flush or half flush. She noted that this small design change shifts a mindless action that humans take every day into one where the ‘user must stop and think.’
Kevin Haley of the think tank Rocky Mountain Institute touched on another type of interface: our electricity grid. When showing data estimating that grid investment would grow by about 3x in the coming years, Haley posited that although our predictions are not always accurate ‘we better hope [this one] comes true.’ A modernized, interoperable grid is crucial to easier deployment of renewables, distributed energy resources and new business models.
Bringing it Back to HQ
So, what’s an energy and sustainability leader to do? There is no doubt that finding ways to manage energy, waste, water and other resource costs, reduce usage and optimize resources is complex, and sometimes even downright daunting.
That’s why it is so important to lean on the expertise and learnings of others to make sure you have the right strategies in place, and when those need to change, know how to shift them.
And, finally, never forget to look for inspiration in unexpected places. Because as I hope these themes showed, what appears to be different on the surface, can be more similar than you think.