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Google, GM and other corporate giants form alliance to create a boom in US clean energy

Key Points
  • Corporations and nonprofits are creating a new trade group to make it easier for companies to buy clean energy.
  • The Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance will help firms take advantage of new deal structures that allow them to directly support clean power projects.
  • REBA aims to grow the market for corporate renewable deals from nearly 16 gigawatts today to 60 GW by 2025.
Solar panels cover the roof of Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California.
Steve Proehl | Corbis Documentary | Getty Images

Some of the nation's top tech firms, manufacturers and consumer companies are banding together to create a boom in renewable energy purchases throughout corporate America.

The corporate giants and their nonprofit partners on Thursday launched the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a trade organization that will help companies take advantage of new ways to purchase clean energy. The goal is to support construction of new green power projects by striking renewable energy deals pioneered by companies such as Google parent Alphabet, General Motors and Walmart in recent years.

"This is really about bringing as many players to the market as possible and giving everyone access to clean energy," said Michael Terrell, head of energy market strategy at Google.

Over the last six years, a handful of corporate giants have created a new way of meeting their sustainable energy goals. By striking deals to buy blocks of energy from utilities and power plant owners, they are underwriting the construction of new wind towers, solar farms and other renewable projects.

Under the banner of REBA, these pioneers aim to empower tens of thousands of companies to buy renewable energy in the coming years — increasing the market from roughly 5,000 companies today.

Through last year, companies signed enough corporate renewable deals to support nearly 16 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity in the U.S. REBA aims to accelerate that activity and grow the market to 60 gigawatts by 2025.

That is a lot of renewable energy. It's roughly equal to all the solar photovoltaic power capacity available across the U.S. in 2018.

Corporate America has a major role to play, because commercial and industrial power users are the leading cause of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., said Miranda Ballentine, REBA's founding CEO.

But beyond the early adopters, few companies have developed the expertise to enter into corporate renewable deals.

"Most of these large buyers have never really done anything different than what you or I do, which is paying an energy bill," Ballentine said.

REBA will leverage the lessons learned by the early adopters that make up its board, including tech titans Google, Facebook and Salesforce and consumer giants Disney, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson.

The group aims to remove barriers to entry by fine-tuning contracts, tackling regulatory and policy hurdles, piloting new clean technology programs and helping companies establish internal systems to ease the path to buying clean energy.

Terrell, the energy market strategist at Google, said entering a corporate renewable deal should be as simple as clicking a button and getting renewable power sent to a data center. However, it's not nearly that easy today, and that's where corporations have a role to play, he said.

Google long wanted to tap Georgia's low-cost solar energy to power its Douglas County data center outside Atlanta, but regional markets didn't allow companies to directly purchase renewable energy from utilities. By partnering with Walmart, Target and Johnson & Johnson, Google worked with the state last year to create a new program for companies to buy clean energy directly from Georgia Power.

Opening up these markets provides another path for companies to reach ambitious clean energy goals.

REBA board member General Motors blew past its 2020 clean energy target a few years ago by adopting traditional methods such as installing solar panels, said Rob Threlkeld, GM's global manager for renewable energy. When GM announced plans to power 350 operations around the world with 100 percent renewable energy, striking corporate renewable deals became a pillar of its plan.

Threlkeld sees an opportunity for carmakers and other companies with vast supply chains to act as force multipliers within their industries by empowering their networks to follow in their footsteps.

"Many of our more advanced members — the Walmarts and Apples and General Motors and J&Js — really are now encouraging or requiring suppliers and vendor partners to come along on this clean energy journey with them," he said.

REBA will launch with about 200 corporate buyers and 125 renewable energy developers and service providers. The trade group grows out of programs supported by nonprofit organizations the Rocky Mountain Institute, World Wildlife Fund, World Resources Institute and Business for Social Responsibility.