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Sustainability goes mainstream


I attended the Sustainable Opportunities Summit yesterday in Denver, hosted by a local organization, CORE, and its member companies, and the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

(CORE once stood for Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy, but now it's embedded in the slogan, "CORE stands for sustainable business.") The topics and speakers and sponsors were too numerous to trot out here, but visit their website to see what it's all about. 

The gathering and the tracks I attended reminded me of the discussions I hear in grid modernization. And while there's an element of "doing the right thing," the panels I heard were filled with high-powered corporations that believe that sustainable practices also lead to cost reductions, more realistic strategic planning and more satisfied employees and customers.

Many of the discussion topics were similar: How to create a sustainable business model. Green marketing. The intersection of IT and energy efficiency. Achieving zero waste. Motivating employee cultural shifts. The nexus of energy, water and food. Green jobs. Talking to customers.

But the language of the discussions themselves also called attention to parallels between the corporate sustainability conversations and those devoted to grid modernization. You can certainly speculate for yourself why that's so, but the first two terms I'll call out probably tell most of the story.  

First, CORE's definition of sustainability: "Sustainability means utilizing the world's natural and human resources to create economic value for the current generation in a manner that conserves and renews those resources so that future generations may use them to achieve an equal or greater quality of life."

That notion certainly governs the shift from coal to natural gas to renewables, as well as describing the driver for grid modernization in terms of intelligence, resilience and the investments to achieve these things. 

Another term: "mainstreaming." As in, sustainability has gone mainstream. In the wake of one of the worst recessions in this country, and certainly in the seemingly perennial boom-bust cycle of a natural resource state such as Colorado, the idea is that growth is great, but not if its inevitable corollary is bust. Some of us, buffeted by hard times, would require a little less in life if we could maintain it without big swings for good or ill. Sustainability also informs the move away from coal, which is another mainstream notion today.

The old standby, "energy efficiency," pervaded many discussions yesterday, in particular when it came to reducing the power needs of large data centers, commercial buildings and industrial processes and residences. That's where corporate sustainability and the power industry are joined at the hip.  

Another term we'll enjoy, except actually saying it: "dematerialization." The example often bandied about is former physical media such as compact discs that have been replaced by digital files. Poof! No materials. But the power industry is in a long-term shift from actual, physical fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and uranium and moving toward sunshine and wind. When it comes to transmission and distribution in a centralized power paradigm, dematerialization could also imply self-sufficient microgrids that no longer need poles and wires. One could argue that people, such as meter readers, are being dematerialized as well, but that's a cruel use of euphemism. 

Another term: "vampire servers." These are the on-site servers that store and manage the data many businesses and hum in the background, quietly maintaining data storage and corporate functions, all the while sucking juice. That term is a bit tainted in that it came from a speaker who is involved in popularizing the cloud, but it pointed to what a company has to weigh when considering using the cloud. If you quantified the energy spend on vampire servers, you might be likelier to explore using the cloud. (Another form of dematerialization, in a sense.)

"The trough of disillusionment." Loved that one. That was a venture capitalist talking about investments in clean tech. As in, first the hype, then the trough of disillusionment, then the hard-eyed look at wringing value from your investments. In the VC world, practitioners are looking for "exit events," meaning, VC-funded companies that manage to launch an initial public offering or get acquired, allowing investors to recoup a return on investment. 

"Silver bullet or silver buckshot" was a crude phrase that doesn't really serve to move the conversation beyond the tired notion of a single solution. I mean, you'll note that a silver bullet is used to kill vampires in fiction, but otherwise it has no real validity. This is just another way of saying that we need a variety of tools in our toolkit. But let's agree to bury that phrase. 

"You can't manage what you can't measure" sure gets a workout in both sustainability discussions and in grid modernization. In sustainability, the accompanying mantra is "reporting, metrics and transparency," which might be said to apply well to power industry pilot projects, particularly those that received federal stimulus dollars. In the corporate world, that drive for transparency has a social responsibility component now under scrutiny in Congress, which is considering requiring disclosure when a company's supply chain relies on so-called "conflict minerals." That is, minerals used in, say, consumer electronics that come from war-torn African nations or other circumstances where human rights violations shouldn't be abetted by far away customers. 

When it comes to the language of sustainability, I suspect that electric utilities, like corporate America, are batting around these phrases, too. Language often reveals a lot of things and, in this case, I find it interesting that often common phrase-ology crops up in both discussions of corporate sustainability and our discussions on grid modernization. Just call me a kook for words. 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily  

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