As the corporate reputations of companies like Google and Ikea continue to suffer from tax-related criticisms, these same companies are quietly engendering themselves to the same lobby in a different way: renewable energy investment.
Google and Ikea both announced last week plans to invest in large wind-farms in the Netherlands and Texas, respectively. These investments are only the latest in a series of such moves for the two companies who will have collectively invested at least $2.9bn in renewable energy by the end of 2015. Google has long been happy to self-publicise a progressive image, but are these deals indicative of a new movement in how corporates obtain their energy. If so, what are the repercussions for conventional power suppliers?
Corporate involvement in renewables is not new. In addition to Google and Ikea, Microsoft, Apple and Walmart are all also known to have either renewable energy deals – in which the corporate buys all of the output of a single solar or wind farm – or direct investment in the creation of renewable production sites, including solar and onshore and offshore wind farms.
There is a clear appeal for corporates to minimise their carbon footprints in the face of increasing pressure from NGOs and campaigners. Unlike most corporates however, large multinationals have the economy of scale to benefit from relatively new renewable technologies. This is not to say renewable energy is cheaper than conventional energy – there remains a significant cost for these firms. However this cost difference decreases as more investment flows into the development of renewable technology. For those willing to take the short-term cost, renewable investment can represent a sound long-term economic decision that is additionally welcomed by many campaigners as positive corporate responsibility. In a sense, it can represent a long-term win-win for multinationals.
However it is not such a clear-cut picture for the wider energy sector. Although their energy use palls in comparison to members of Energy Intensive Industries (EII), large businesses like Google and Ikea are a key source of profit for conventional energy suppliers. As more multinationals seek to take advantage of this win-win through renewable energy technology investment, dependence on conventional energy providers is likely to decrease.
Conventional energy providers will be faced with a number of options to maintain profits in the face of a decreasing consumer pool. A medium-term rise in energy prices for both consumers and corporates alike can be expected. Adaptive conventional energy suppliers however will recognise the unsustainability of such a move, especially in the face of increased political pressure on energy suppliers to deliver consumers lower energy bills. These suppliers will likely begin partnering with multinationals to invest in renewable technologies and production in a bid to stave off a mass exodus of large corporate customers.
Longer-term, this rise in environmental corporate responsibility will serve to be a market force in nudging conventional energy suppliers to diversify their energy supply by eventually providing renewably-sourced energy to these large customers. There has thus far been trepidation in diversifying away from conventional energy while the profit margins remain insecure. However this insecurity may be deemed a price worth paying for the ability to maintain long-term, profitable multinationals as customers. Although not a traditional image, the outcome represents a perfect example of ‘consumer power’.