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What the Heck Is Sustainability? A Primer for Utilities

Part 1
By Justin Rickard - Research Manager, Kevin Vranes - Director of Energy Management Services

We’re starting a many-part series of blog posts on sustainability for the utility industry. Why? Because we agree wholeheartedly with Jon Wellinghoff, who said, “Utilities must change or die.” Change is inevitable in every industry, without exception. Many companies recognize this, and across corporate America, companies from Proctor & Gamble to Starbucks are making sustainability a core component of their long-term survival strategy. We believe that the utility industry could benefit handsomely from starting to consider a similar focus on sustainability. At the same time, we recognize that many utilities aren’t sure where to start. We’d like to help, so in this and upcoming blog posts, we’ll closely examine the definitions, concepts, and actions of sustainability in terms of how it affects the utility world.

“Sustainability” means different things to many people. We’d venture to guess that most people equate the term with environmental impact or being “green.” The term sustainability has so many meanings that the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) has started the ISSP Lexicon Project to “move towards a consensus on the terminology used by sustainability professionals across various disciplines.” While we wait for that to happen, here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it:

Sus•tain•able adj: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged

This definition has bedrock clarity for small, isolated populations on remote islands: Use your resources only at the rate they can be naturally replenished and you will survive; use them faster than the replenishment rate and you will die out along with your resources. But does it similarly apply to businesses in the United States? Without a doubt.

Corporate sustainability has two components: (1) a company’s operational, financial, and human resources practices that allow it to continue to operate and (2) how the company interacts with and affects the external world. We’re focused on the latter and we think utilities should be, too.

The ways in which utilities interact with their larger environment (in both sustainable and unsustainable ways) can be seen in electricity generation, resource extraction, and procurement, to name a few. These activities affect environmental quality, climate change, worker and community health, and many other areas, and their impacts range in scale from global to local. Considering this entire picture—all of the causes and effects, choices, and impacts—indicates where each utility is on the sustainability spectrum.

So what is sustainability? At the very beginning, it’s the attention to and awareness of all these details. It’s coming to terms with the impacts—both positive and negative—that utilities have on the people they serve and the larger environment. Down the road, it’s the conscious choices each utility makes to address these impacts and thinking of ways to embed those choices into utility business strategy year after year. How each utility decides to address these questions will be unique. To us, the most important thing is that utilities start the conversation now.

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