By David Kligman
SAN FRANCISCO — Corporate sustainability at California’s investor-owned utilities isn’t new. It’s been a journey spanning decades rooted in a strong and sustained environmental commitment.
But, these days sustainability encompasses much more than environmental awareness, as demonstrated at a forum today (Aug. 21) held at the California Public Utilities Commission.
The purpose of the daylong program was to provide greater insight on how utilities, such as PG&E, define and embrace corporate sustainability, which one speaker described as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
“To me, this is topic 1A of all the things that I have to deal with,” CPUC President Michael Peevey said. “This planet is headed shortly to 7 billion people. Most will clamor for a lifestyle enjoyed by most of us in this room today. We simply cannot achieve an Earth that is truly livable without focusing full-time on sustainability. We certainly cannot succeed by returning to an earlier era.”
Ezra Garrett, PG&E’s vice president of community relations and chief sustainability officer, gave an overview of how California’s investor-owned utilities are collaborating on this expanded idea of sustainability.
He said the utilities, including Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas, already have done a lot.
- Advancing energy efficiency. The utilities are projected to save about 7,000 GWh and 150 million metric therms of natural gas through energy efficiency programs the past three years. That’s the equivalent of avoiding 3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Expanding renewable energy. Since 2003, the utilities have achieved commercial operation of some 2,870 megawatts of new renewable capacity.
- Assisting customers in need. More than 400,000 homeowners benefited from the Energy Savings Assistance Program in 2011, saving income-qualified renters and homeowners more than 78 million kWh and nearly 6 million therms. And nearly 4 million eligible households were offered a discount on their energy bills through the CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy) program last year.
- Supporting diverse suppliers. In 2011, the utilities spent more than $3.8 billion with women-, minority- and disabled veteran-owned suppliers, representing some 35 percent of utility supply chain spending. (PG&E spent a record $1.6 billion on diverse businesses last year.)
Much of this work from utilities has happened through different approaches. And that has been important, Garrett said.
“Fundamentally, this is a healthy result,” Garrett said. “Because for sustainability to be truly ingrained throughout a company’s core business, the sustainability program must be customized to a company’s unique attributes, including its customer base, geographies, company culture and business priorities.”
But Garrett said the utilities are increasingly collaborating more to help customers. He pointed to their long-standing work together on building codes and appliance standards that foster energy efficiency, which just earned an award from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Another recent example is Energy Upgrade California, a program that offers financial incentives to homeowners who plan multiple—“whole house”—energy improvement projects.
Following his remarks, one of the commissioners asked Garrett why PG&E’s sustainability work encompasses much more than environmental efforts. Garrett’s response: Sustainability should be woven throughout the company.
The ultimate goal, Garrett said, is to provide safe, reliable and affordable energy for customers. Sustainability has a hand in all of that.
“Fundamentally, sustainability means integrating the social, economic and environmental dimensions throughout the core business of a company,” said Garrett.
For sustainability to succeed, Commissioner Mark Ferron said, it has to be more than just fulfilling a requirement within a company.
“A commitment to sustainability needs to be embedded in a company’s culture,” he said. “It’s not just noble, but it’s good for business….I’d like to publicly applaud the efforts of the utilities here in promoting renewables and energy efficiency over the last several decades.”
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he believes California’s utilities are up to the challenge. He pointed to their long histories of leadership on energy efficiency and the environment, including PG&E’s annual Clarke Awards given to employees who benefit the environment and its customers.
“Collectively, these companies are the utility industry’s largest investors in energy efficiency, in renewables, in supporting infrastructure,” Cavanagh said. “They have shown a consistent spirit of innovation on efficiency that’s admired across the country.”
(PG&E’s 2011 Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability Report, which will provide a comprehensive view on how sustainability is being integrated into the business, will be released next month.)
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.