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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Helping Big Energy Consumers Find Renewable Solutions

Letha Tawney

21 Feb 2018

Letha Tawney, Director of Utility Innovation and Polsky Chair for Renewable Energy at the World Resources Institute recently engaged with with Minnesota-based Environmental Initiative to bring together energy providers and consumers in the upper Midwest.  Her goal?  To help find cost saving access to renewable energy which also helps mitigate climate change risk.  In this piece, she unpacks the broad strategy for this important work on a national basis.  Tim Nixon, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Tim: How does your role at WRI help drive the adoption of renewable energy?

Letha: Large buyers – companies, cities, universities – have made substantial commitments to buy renewable energy. WRI helps them do that in the highest impact manner possible. By bringing large customers together with their utilities, we create new opportunities to add large-scale renewable energy affordably.

Tim: Are there specific partner organizations that help you with this?

Letha: We collaborate closely with our partners at the Renewable Energy Buyers’ Alliance. Rocky Mountain Institute has created a highly effective marketplace and learning center for buyers that want to pursue power purchase agreements. WWF has supported buyers pursuing public policy to increase access to clean energy. BSR has created new standards and approaches for the data center industry as it scales up power use quickly and substantially. Together, we all help buyers achieve and maximize the positive impact of their purchasing goals.

Tim: Can you tell us about an example of how this works in practice?

Letha: In Minnesota, WRI has collaborated with Xcel and customers to pilot a renewable energy program for large-buyers – Renewable Connect. We continue to support dialogue around improving and expanding the pilot as we learn from it. At the same time RMI has educated buyers in the region who would rather go directly to the market. This improves the quality of the deals buyers do as well as shortens the time it takes to reach agreement. Different buyers need different strategies to reach their goals.

Tim: How would you describe the trend in interest in renewable energy from corporates in the U.S.?

Letha: Interest is still growing in renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Companies continue to commit to Science Based Targets for their emissions – driving purchasing strategies that will include renewables. More and more cities, states and other public sector buyers are also making new commitments. There is substantial momentum behind efforts to meet the Paris Commitments for GHG reductions by 2020, particularly if the federal government is not preparing to.

Tim: What are the major impediments to integration of renewables in a corporate energy mix?

Letha: Many large buyers have very dispersed loads across the country, increasing the transaction cost and complexity of local solutions. Other buyers are grappling with transitioning existing facilities to renewable energy, particularly with historically low power prices across the country – this is a particular area where the utilities can be a crucial partner.

Tim: Do you see the price of renewable energy continuing to decline compared to alternatives?

Letha: Everyone wonders if we’ve found the bottom of the price curve. Developers are certainly still squeezing costs out – to the benefit of electricity customers broadly.

Tim: Do you see a culture of innovation with renewable energy leaders, either users or providers?

Letha: There is absolutely a culture of innovation with the leaders in purchasing renewable energy. In many cases, the same individuals have been pushing the frontier of this effort for the last 15 years – they may be at the same company or have moved within the industry. There is a tight knit community of practice that seems to always be leaning into the edge of this opportunity. It’s exciting to see their constant experimentation and adaptation.

Tim: What will this role look like in 2030?

Letha: The frontier of this field will have moved substantially by 2030. The electricity sector will likely have cut emissions substantially. WRI, the REBA partners and the corporate leaders will likely be preoccupied with renewables integration opportunities and weighing the future role of natural gas and how to manage the retirement of gas plants that aren’t particularly old.

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