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02.07.11

Winds of Change: Who's Doing What in Wind?

The fifth column in the ongoing Daily Beast series on wind energy acknowledges some of the businesses that have begun to invest in sustainable energy as they imagine a new way to power the future.

A global study among the top 500 global corporations claims that less than one in ten companies have more than 10% of the electricity they use coming from wind. Yet, according to new research, Energy Policy reports that by 2030 it will be both possible and affordable for the world to achieve 100% renewable energy if the political will is there to meet this goal. At the moment, that’s a pretty big if.

Board-governed independent non-profit, WindMade™ just had its coming-out party at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week, and its mission is to encourage global corporations to electrify its plants and make its widgets using wind energy. The new WindMade eco-label will ID wind-produced products and bring the actions of socially responsible corporations to motivated consumers.

Several companies already understand the business smarts in sustainable energy investment, and their stories deserve notice if only to motivate the uninitiated. They’re corporations looking toward setting tougher targets for renewable energy as a share of their global energy consumption, and many of them have begun to invest in wind farms or are in the throes of purchasing renewable energy credits.

Google, for one, has gotten plenty of press about its four-year-old ambition to become a carbon-neutral company. Last summer, the multinational, which depends upon hefty quantities of electricity to power its online services, bought 114 megawatts of wind generation at the NextEra Energy Resources facility in Iowa. Reportedly, it’s power enough to supply several of Google’s data centers for twenty years. “By contracting to purchase so much energy for so long,” writes Senior VP of Operations Urs Hoelzle in his blog post, “the developer of the wind farm is being given financial certainty and the incentive and means to build additional clean energy projects.”

Last October, Google also invested in a plan to erect a 350-mile stretch of wind turbines in shallow waters about ten miles off the Atlantic coast. Strong, steady sea winds will deliver energy via underwater cables, and ultimately will help to relieve an overly taxed Northeast corridor grid.

Change in the Marketplace.

Paul Donald, founder of Branch, the online purveyor of stylish eco-friendly home design goods, says that the materials used to make what he sells, and how they’re made, are key to calling his business sustainable. “We’ve changed the paradigm of shopping,” he says of his San Francisco operation. Offering consumers a place to buy products that are “appealing on every level, they must also be manufactured and brought to market in a way that we don’t have to feel guilty about buying, or eventually disposing of them.”

Besides requiring that a product be made from recycled or organic materials, it’s crucial to the Branch credo that something is manufactured using a renewable energy source. So items it stocks, like artfully handmade glass pitchers, carafes, and vases from Portland, Oregon’s Esque Studio that uses wind-powered electric furnaces to create the modern designs, begin to define how Branch (and Esque) are steadily earning their sustainable street cred.

Alternatively Empowered.

So-called architectural wind micro-turbines are showing up on roofs to make wind power more aesthetic for city folk, thanks to California-based AeroVironment (AV), responsible for designing wind micro-turbines specifically for urban areas. Blades rotate at low-wind speeds and operate more quietly, and AV claims there’s no structural impact on existing buildings. (Each module weighs about 200 pounds, is a virtual breeze to install, they say, and even features a protective bird screen.) Such turbines may soon become regular fixtures in major cities as Boston has already built some near Logan Airport, and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has the notion of putting them atop skyscrapers. Safe to say, San Francisco can’t be far behind.

Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Co. is the third largest producer of craft beer in the country. The popular Fat Tire ale is one of seven being produced in its Fort Collins facility. Considered one of the country’s more environmentally progressive breweries, New Belgium is the first brewery in the U.S. that purports to use wind-generated electricity with the help of a city-sponsored wind program. But a walk through its Climate Conservancy report assessing the greenhouse gases emitted during the manufacturing of the microbrew, requires a thirty-seven-page explanation and a loupe. With many components involved in the making of the beloved amber ale, qualifying for a credible wind-powered consumer label may be more of a challenge to ultimately obtain than for some.

Standards of certification for the new WindMade global consumer energy label will go through arduous paces, both public and private, over the next few months before they’re locked in. But at the other end of its vetting process, presumably a straightforward, user-friendly e-logo that will guide and inform consumers and their purchasing choices awaits. It won’t hurt that the label’s presence in the marketplace will also further validate the many corporations who’ve already understood that turning sustainable practices into economic gain makes good business sense.

The next column will review if the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, helped to advance some of the far-reaching goals of renewable wind energy.