On this Easter morning, it seems relevant to reflect on the theme of faith — a belief or conviction based on “spiritual apprehension” rather than proof. Faith is the foundation of every religion, of course, the reverse of the “seeing is believing” adage. It’s an emotion I find myself drawing on often in these strange times.
The “faith” I cling to most fiercely of late is this: that despite the current administration’s decision to abandon leadership when it comes to protecting the planet from humankind’s negative impact on our air, water and soil, many of our country’s most important companies and cities will continue to blaze the path ahead. I’m not naive enough to believe this behavior is entirely altruistic, but the economics favor these investments. The broader theme of social inclusion is also becoming ingrained in the investments some of the world’s largest businesses are making.
Here’s a recent development that will get you thinking: in early April, the Ford Foundation made a very bold change in how it will allocate funds. It’s devoting $1 billion over the next 10 years to what it calls “mission-related investments” that support social transformation. As the foundation’s president Darren Walker notes in his blog: “If philanthropy’s past half century was about optimizing the 5 percent, its next half century will be about beginning to harness the 95 percent as well, carefully and creatively.”
This video offers a primer:
For perspective, the organization’s endowment is $12 billion, so this isn’t a majority of the money it controls. But $1 billion is a substantial sum of money.
Walker explains the decision:
It is deeply rooted in our ongoing program work to build more inclusive economies, help mature the impact investing sector, and fulfill our special obligation to help move market-based economies toward “the high road”—squaring the dynamism of markets with society’s highest values, especially fairness and human dignity.
It remains to be seen whether Ford’s decision is an outlier or the fore-runner of a broader shift in how many of the big corporate foundations allocated their funds. The framework of tax laws will doubtless shape those decisions, especially since it’s difficult to “prove” the value of some of these investments. It’s a question of faith.
It probably won’t surprise you to discover that many of the companies investing in on-site solar technology—rather than waiting around for their local utility to start selling clean power—are either retailers or real estate investment firms. The Solar Energy Industries Association keeps tabs on this with an annual ranking.
Most of the names on that list are pretty familiar, such as Target (No. 1) and Walmart (a close No. 2). Others, not so much.
Over the past several months, I’ve interviewed two of those “others” — industrial warehouse giant Prologis, which is third on the list (its total capacity is now smaller than when I wrote my story), and luxury mall operator General Growth Properties (GGP), which is ninth.
One thing that struck me most about my chat with GGP was the simple fact that it was the chief operating officer who handled the interview. Believe me, these investments were considered carefully — right now about 20 of the company’s malls sport solar panels, and another 30 projects or so are in the pipeline.
The states where they are located are diverse: although the company began experimenting first in New Jersey and Hawaii, mainly because that’s where the financial case was strongest to begin.
Every single one of them is metered carefully, using software that keeps tabs on electricity consumption down to the outlet. For me, this intention to detail is another indication that many of the investments that businesses are making in solar and wind energy are predicated as much on their economic practicality as they are driven by an interest in doing the right thing. Slowly but surely.
What discourages homeowners from investing in solar power generation technology? Cost is certainly the most obvious obstacle, but there’s also a certain snobbery involved. Seriously, most solar panels aren’t all the aesthetically pleasing. No matter how much my contractor-husband appreciates the idea of clean energy, he winces when he sees them.
The good news: Elon Musk, the entrepreneurial billionaire behind both electric vehicle company Tesla and clean energy installer SolarCity, hopes to change that perception with a new SolarCity product that embeds the generation technology right into the roof tiles. The not-so-good news: Musk conveniently neglected to mention when his so-called solar roof will be available.
Solar roofs (aka “building integrated photovoltaic” technologies) aren’t a new idea: more high-profile new buildings are including BIPV features such as the San Francisco 49ers stadium in Santa Clara, California; and the flagship Apple store in San Francisco’s Union Square, which includes PV panels that are integrated into the roof design. But there’s something to be said for brand recognition, something that both SolarCity and Tesla have managed to generate.