Category Archives: Green

Telling the Renewable Energy Story in Germany and Abroad

Last week I posted about the growth of Germany’s homegrown renewable energy industry. Since then I’ve been working more closely with the energy unit in Waggener Edstrom’s Munich office and have come away with a deeper understanding of PR’s opportunity in renewable energy.

The business case for renewable energy is pretty clear. The global population is growing. As major economies become increasingly developed, their populations will expect first-world living conditions, which includes access to consistent and affordable energy. Most conventional fuel sources—coal, natural gas and oil—are globally traded commodities that are subject to significant, and often unpredictable, price swings that have a sizable impact on the cost of energy.

Both conventional and renewable energy sources have significant upfront capital costs to build a power plant. What sets renewables apart is that they eliminate the cost of a fuel source. As technology continues to improve, the cost of renewable energy is plummeting and in a number of markets is beginning to reach grid parity, where it costs the same or less as conventional energy. In Germany alone, the country’s solar power covered 10 to 50 percent of peak-load power every day during the past 6 months.

WE Munich has been quite successful over the past few years in cultivating a base of renewable energy clients, including Canadian Solar, Kirchner Solar Group and Green City Energy. These clients range from manufacturers to installers, demonstrating the opportunity for telling the renewable energy story across the value chain. At the same time, the office here has been investing in its people to build expertise in the renewables market. WE Munich’s Mareike Lenzen, who has graciously hosted me in the office during my visit here, is a guest lecturer on energy policy in Africa at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians-University.

The team’s work with renewable energy clients is getting attention too. Last year the Munich office’s energy team won the 2011 SABRE Award for best EMEA renewable energy campaign as a result of facilitating a strategic partnership between two clients—Green City Energy and RAU. Green City Energy is a renewable energy service provider, while RAU installs acoustic fences that help limit noise pollution. The team in Munich proposed placing solar panels on top of a fence that RAU was developing for Nestle and provided counsel throughout the process, from communicating the benefits of a solar acoustic fence to advising on financial terms of the deal. The project, which otherwise would have been built without the solar installation, resulted in producing enough clean energy to supply 50 households for a year. The ensuing media coverage reached an audience of over 2.7 million people.

As my time here in Munich comes to an end, I’m looking forward to returning to Seattle with the knowledge I’ve gained here working alongside our energy team. They are clearly passionate about renewable energy and have developed some pretty impressive credentials working for clients here in Germany. To learn more about what’s inside the energy story, check out this video that the Munich team created in 2010.

When you look at the market potential, we’re still at the prologue of the renewable energy story. WE’s Global Exchange has been a great opportunity to learn more about that story and understand what to expect in the upcoming chapters.

This post was originally published at WaggenerEdstrom.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Green

Hergestellt in Deutschland: Germany’s Homegrown Renewable Energy

When you take the train in to downtown Munich from the airport, one of the first things you notice is the solar panels dotting rooftops.

For an American who follows renewable energy issues, coming to Germany is like stepping into the future. In the U.S. total solar generation capacity is less than 0.1 percent. In Germany it is already 10 percent of the country’s base load—and 75 percent of that comes from solar panels on people’s homes and businesses. Those rooftop panels or ground-mounted solar units provide electricity directly to a home or business. And when there’s excess capacity, residents are able to sell electricity back into the electric grid at a fixed rate—often up to a 30 percent profit. How’s that for self-reliance and entrepreneurship?

The rapid growth of solar energy in Germany is largely the result of the country’s feed-in tariff. (It’s certainly not because of the number of sunny days; Germany gets roughly as much sun as Seattle and Portland.) A feed-in tariff is a government policy that encourages the growth of a new energy technology. Producers of electricity using certain technologies—like solar, wind and biomass—are guaranteed a certain price for electricity generated for 20 years following installation.

For the average German homeowner, that means they can install rooftop solar—at an average cost of 25,000 euros—and often pay it off in 10 years. The remaining 10 years on the feed-in tariff can be pure profit for the homeowner, netting an overall profit of up to 30 percent. Each year the feed-in tariff goes down by a scheduled amount until a point in the future when solar energy is expected to be cost competitive with electricity from the grid (often natural gas or nuclear). That’s already happened in southern Italy, where the cost of solar energy has become equal to energy from conventional sources.

The success of solar energy can also be attributed to Germans’ preference for products that are hergestellt in Deutschland, or made in Germany. The solar industry in Germany encompasses manufacturing, installation, maintenance, sales and marketing, creating jobs at all levels of the economy—with more than 380,000 jobs in the sector last year. Companies at all levels of the solar value chain—from photovoltaic panel manufacturers to installers—need help telling their story.

While the German industry has experienced some hiccups due to global competition, the solar industry as a whole is here to stay. Germany plans to meet 35 percent of its electricity consumption needs in 2020 with renewable energy. Thirty U.S. states, from Washington to Virginia, have passed legislation mandating that renewable energy account for 15 percent or more of consumption. It’s been exciting to learn more about the industry in a place where it’s been so successful and get a sense of the industry’s potential to grow in the U.S. and globally.

This post was originally published on WaggenerEdstrom.com. Special thanks to WE Munich’s Mareike Lenzen for some of the data points included in this post.

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Green

An American in Munich

I’m nearing the end of my second day in the Munich office as part of Global Exchange. Munich itself has been stunning—modern and historical at once. After subsisting on a diet of Bavarian sausage and beer for my first two days, I’ve made the transition to pasta and salad. And that’s good news because Munich is home to a very large Italian community—after all, it’s only 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Italy’s northern border—with a trattoria on nearly every corner. It’s also evident how much Munich is a compact city. I’ve heard it described more than once as like a village—a village that happens to be home to 1.3 million residents and the global headquarters of BMW, Siemens and Allianz.

And don’t forget to look out for bikes! Bicycle commuting in Munich is everywhere, accounting for 14% of all traffic. In the central city nearly every street has dedicated bike lanes set apart from auto traffic, often with the bike lane sharing half the sidewalk with pedestrians. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of bikes parked outside a U-Bahn station. In fact, most cyclists don’t bother wearing helmets given how prevalent biking is here.

This Monday also marked the beginning of the new Munich office with the combined forces of WE Munich and Patzer PR. I’m told that the former WE office here was in a converted apartment which, while it had lovely fin de siècle chandeliers, never quite felt like a full office. WE München has now arrived. The new office is beautiful—a loft-like space with glass walls everywhere. It’s in a neighborhood full of other marketing agencies. I knew I was in the right place on my first day when I walked into the courtyard where the office is located and saw a red Mini Cooper suspended upside down from a skybridge.

The team here in Munich has been incredibly gracious toward me, especially with seamlessly switching to perfectly fluent English whenever I’m around. (In fact, most of the people I’ve spoken with have three or more languages.) We talked about how compact and tightly connected markets are in the Europe compared to the U.S.—the longest flight in Germany is 1 hour and a 2-hour flight gets you outside Europe. They in turn were struck by the distances between WE’s U.S. offices and how we operate differently from our presence here in Europe.

Over the next few days I’m going to continue sharing what I’m learning here. Look for a post soon on the renewable energy industry in Germany and the opportunity for communications. Until then, tschüss!

This post was originally published at WaggenerEdstrom.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Green

Leaving on a Jet Plane for Global Exchange

Tomorrow I get on a plane and fly halfway around the world from Seattle to Munich. On Tuesday I walk into Waggener Edstrom’s brand new Munich office—the office doubled in size following our purchase of healthcare PR firm Patzer earlier this year—for a two-week visit as part of WE’s Global Exchange program. While there I’ll work alongside our account team focused on renewable energy and get an inside look at how communications professionals ply their trade in Germany.

The Global Exchange program started a little over five years ago as an opportunity to create stronger ties across our offices around the world. A small handful of people participated in the first year program—and this year it’s expanded to 18 of us in 10 offices, from Beijing to Johannesburg and from San Francisco to London. For an agency with Northwest roots and a global footprint, the opportunity to go on Global Exchange allows WE employees to better understand the work that WE does on an international scale.

Why Munich? When applying for the exchange, I selected Munich in large part because it’s an exciting time to be in Germany. Over the past 20 years Germany has instituted economic policies that have helped grow one of the largest solar energy industries in the world—in May solar energy accounted for 10% of Germany’s electricity consumption, a 40% increase over May of 2011. Some of WE’s key clients in our Munich office are leading solar energy companies. For someone whose communications work focuses on supporting environmental sustainability for clients like Microsoft, it’s a great opportunity to see first-hand how renewable energy is succeeding in the marketplace. After its strong economy largely weathered the global recession of the past four years, Germany is now in a position to play an important role in deciding the future of the euro zone, making it a fascinating place for an American like myself to learn about doing business globally.

Watch WaggenerEdstrom.com over the next two weeks for updates from me on the ground in Munich. I’ll be writing about what I’m learning from our colleagues in Munich and the broader business landscape in Germany. Look for my first dispatch from Munich early next week!

This post was originally published on WaggenerEdstrom.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Green

The Economist Embraces CSR and Corporate Sustainability

The Schumpeter column in this week’s Economist is well worth reading for its take on the evolving nature of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Using an upcoming sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro (following the UN’s Rio +20 earlier in June) as a news hook, the article makes the claim that CSR has “a hard-earned reputation for flakiness,” known for “agreeable-sounding platitudes” and the prevalence of the conference circuit. That’s a criticism you might expect from our friends at the bastion for free enterprise and markets that is the Economist. But the article goes on to describe how CSR is evolving from managing corporate reputations (through greenwashing and the like) to embracing business fundamentals through the lens of social innovation, such as supply chain management and sustainable product design.

For Schumpeter, sustainability has emerged as the loudest buzzword in the CSR vernacular. The column cites some interesting statistics: A recent MIT Sloan Management Review survey found that last year 67% of managers believe that sustainability is a key to competitive success, up from 55% the year before. The business principles are clear: Business managers have realized that making the most of finite resources is good business both in the factory and at the consumer’s home. Unilever has created detergents that use less water when doing the laundry, for instance. Because many facets of sustainability can be measured—think of carbon emissions, water and waste—businesses can modify products, packaging and their supply chains to make measurable improvements.

The column’s conclusion sums up how the established business order is coming around to CSR and sustainability. I would probably do best to quote this in full:

In the days when CSR was just about public relations, it was probably bad for the reputation of business in general. Companies seemed to concede that profitmaking was a bad thing. Too often, they bowed to anti-business activists and made ‘amends’ through good works. Today’s iteration of CSR is less self-abasing and more constructive. It is encouraging businesses to become more frugal in their use of resources and more imaginative in the way they think about competitive advantage.

The article raises a number of great questions about how to approach CSR, namely whether an effort is essentially playing defense or integrating social responsibility into how one does business. Some of the companies cited in the article, like Nike, appear to have done that very well in recent years, especially in light of its shortcomings in the 90s around the labor in its factories. Another good reminder that sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Green

Why Do The Yaks Hate Us?

So instead of writing these massive book reviews, I thought I’d share a few tidbits from a book I’m currently reading. The book When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–Or Destroy It. Yes, more light reading. It’s written by Jonathan Watts, a China-based environmental correspondent for The Guardian in the UK. Based on his years living in China, the book takes a look at the four geographic corners of the country, chronicling the China’s environmental history, the damage that’s been done by rapid industrialization and whether the country can avoid becoming an environmental wasteland.

Reading through a chapter on the Tibetan plateau, Watts conveys in three paragraphs how subtle changes to economic policy can have significant impacts on climate. In this case, the impact is negative, but I think a takeaway is that it can go either way.

The culprit here is yaks. Yes, yaks, or more to the point, regulatory changes made in the 1980s that deregulated herd sizes for both sheep and yaks, the two primary livestock on the Tibetan plateau. Deregulation meant that herders could buy as many animals as they could afford, and a subsequent change to tax policy valued yaks at four times the amount of sheep (which on the face of it makes sense, yaks are pretty big). In addition, the government banned polygamy around the same time. All of this incentivized herders to increase the size of their yak herds, because it was now legal, a better value and a larger yak herd made up for the lost prestige of no longer having multiple wives.

Yaks grazing on the Tibetan plateau

More yaks meant more yaks grazing, and that quickly threw off the equilibrium between livestock and grassland that had been set over thousands of years. The overgrazing caused much of the plateau to rapidly become desert and less able to absorb moisture. This caused more heat to radiate into the atmosphere, and with much of the plateau at an elevation of 14,000 feet or more, this heat radiation had an outsize impact on climate. The result was that the Tibetan mountains have been warmed more than anywhere else in China, even with the massive amounts of pollutants created by industrial production in the country’s east.

Set right against the Himalayas, the adjacent mountains funneled water vapor directly into the stratosphere rather than becoming rain or snow, as it would have at a lower elevation. Water vapor has a greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, increasing climate temperatures even more. Because of its place on the globe–at an incredibly high elevation and next to the world’s highest mountain range–changes to the Tibetan land quickly impact climate on a global scale. As Watts writes:

Changes in the soil here fed back rapidly into the atmosphere, affecting global air circulation just as rising ocean surface temperatures affected storm patterns.

It’s a reminder of the law of unintended consequences. When dealing with the environment, every action has an equal and opposite reaction–but we don’t learn what it is until well after the fact.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, Green, Science

All About Dams

I won’t say too much about this to belabor the point, but this is a great video put out by the Hydropower Reform Coalition, a group aimed at pushing the hydropower industry to better manage dams in order to reduce their impact, often great, on river ecosystems.

Dams are complicated things. They’re emission-free and have great side effects, like turning the Central Washington desert into a major agricultural region, but they’re hell on rivers. Salmon are some of the most well-known losers. But dams can impact everything from water temperature and sediment flows to flooding lowland valleys, which are important for animals in search of food in the winter.

I consider myself reasonably informed on Northwest issues, but I had admittedly never heard of “small hydro” until coming across this video on the blog for the American Alps Legacy Project. Let’s just say the video, in all its tongue-in-cheek glory, did its job by framing the debate from the get-go and successfully shaping my opinion, while getting quite a few laughs out of me as well. I’m on board with their view that we should make the most of the dams we have rather than building new ones that will damage creeks in the North Cascades like this.

Bottom line: It’s an impressive piece of work from a fairly small advocacy group.

Small Hydro Power from Tom11 Films on Vimeo.

Leave a comment

Filed under Communications, Green, Northwest, Science, Uncategorized