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Renewable Energy Firms Strike Gold with Green Employee Benefits

All things being equal, if a potential employer paid for your time away from the office to volunteer for an earth-friendly cause or provided you with free compact fluorescent light bulbs and an energy audit of your home, or even a hybrid car, would you be more inclined to join them? Leading by example, renewable energy firms are developing "green" or environmentally friendly employee benefits that align the core values of a CEO and culture of their organization with the core values of each employee.

Fueled by strong convictions, a desire to mold a cohesive company culture, achieve good will and gain competitive advantages — for clients and employee talent, relatively low-cost employee benefit programs motivate employees to become more energy conscious consumers, live healthier lives and neutralize their own personal carbon footprint. Professing the sustainable merits of a firm's renewable technology or service appears simply not enough. "Most employees want to have meaning in their lives and want to work for a company that incorporates that in their values," states Gillan Taddune, Chief Environmental Officer of Green Mountain Energy in Austin, TX.

Increasingly CEO's across all industries are providing direction to drive a company culture that defines actions and responsibilities that are environmentally sustainable & socially responsible, and this action is best illustrated in the renewable energy industry. CEO's exhibit great passion and are driven to succeed in what they do and why they do it. Abby White, Company Spokesperson of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT observes that a culture of sustainability needs to originate from the top. "Our owners Jan and David Blittersdorf hold values that are very dear to them, care deeply about environmental stewardship and have worked hard to raise employees awareness to live more sustainable. They developed a company culture that creates a tighter bond between employee and employer."

Why would a company that most likely already offers employees a generous host of employee benefits including health and life insurance, paid personal and vacation days, matching retirement plans and equity grants, spend additional money and be concerned with employee environmental stewardship? Steve Roalstad of Xcel Energy in Minneapolis says, "We provide green benefits because our CEO, Dick Kelly thinks it's important, it's the right thing to do, to walk the walk and because we really do take pride in ourselves in what we are doing."

Green Mountain Energy's new downtown Austin headquarters has gained LEED Silver certification. Providing a more sustainable workplace mirrors their employee values. According to Taddune, Green Mountain Energy's employees have increased productivity through working conditions such as providing natural daylight and efficiently maximizing office space. On Earth Day, each employee celebrates and acknowledges the day in a Texas-sized way. A sustainable gift is given to each employee, educational programs are presented and a free buffet lunch is provided from neighbor, Whole Foods Market. After lunch, employees enjoy an exhilarating hike through idyllic hill country.

According to Clint Porter, Sales Manager at KACO Solar, a net carbon neutral company that presently employs six, one of the many benefits to working there "is to work with others who share your values to live a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle." The firm encourages morning group workouts, subsidizes gym memberships and grants time off for marathons. Our green employee benefits keep people happy and involved. You're not going to see any of our folks in the parking lot smoking stogies and driving hummers."

A recent study by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) reports that renewable energy and energy efficiency industries have generated approximately 8.5 million green collar jobs in the United States that number could grow to as many as 40 million green collar jobs by 2030. Globally, as demand for renewable energy increases, the practical applications of providing these Employee benefits as a recruitment "tool" is obviously advantageous, especially in attracting talent from outside the renewable market.

Neil Lurie, Director of Marketing for ASES in Boulder, CO says that, "offering green benefits can make a difference in a candidate's decision to join a firm." Renewable energy firms vie for the same talent with more traditional industries. Lurie observes that organizations that offer green employee benefits are located in some of the most competitive regions of the country: Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin and other highly concentrated, traditional high-tech business communities.

Boston based EnerNOC helps businesses manage and reduce their electricity consumption. According to David Samuels, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, "I think now, more than ever before, acting in an environmentally responsible way is top-of-mind with our employees and potential employees. Our core business is about helping utilities and companies think differently about energy consumption, we want to attract employees who share these values."

Prospects and employees want to align values and work. Increasingly, professionals from outside the renewable industry genuinely want their work to have some meaning in the bigger scheme of things. Many are generally pleased with their careers but largely view them as unfulfilled. A candidate recently summed-up quite well what many feel, "I spend over 50 hours a week of my life here and for what, to ultimately make and sell these awful widgets? I need more, something that really matters, that's important!"

"During the interview process, a lot of employees really want to know what a company is made of," comments Roalstad of Xcel Energy. "If an engineer was considering another firm, all things being equal, they will turn to us because they like what we are doing."

Putting value in a sustainable lifestyle also goes both ways. Some firms weigh heavily a potential candidate's belief system when considering their suitability for employment. Gaiam, based in Broomfield, CO provides information, goods and services that value a sustainable environment and healthy lifestyles. According to their HR group, "prospects belief systems are definitely taken into account when interviewing for an open position at all levels. Having a basic knowledge and passion about LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) is as important as the employee's experience and qualifications. Interviewers are expected to take such qualities and knowledge into account when making hiring decisions."

The green employee benefits being offered generally fall into four categories: work related, transportation, residential and personal/well-being and here are a few other examples:

  • NRG Systems offers employees a stipend of $300 per year toward purchasing compact fluorescent light bulbs, furnace cleaning and improved energy-efficient windows. They give employees $1,000 per year toward a solar hot-water system, solar PV panels, a wind turbine or a wood-pellet furnace and an additional $1,000 per year toward the purchase of a Toyota Prius and for as long as they own the vehicle. NRG estimates that 76% of their employees took advantage of these energy efficiency benefits in 2006.

  • Xcel Energy deploys the mantra, our employees are also our customers and the utility has a solar rewards program aimed to rebate per KW to customers and employees alike. As one of the nation's largest wind energy providers they offer employees a wind source program to employees in three states, Minnesota, Colorado and New Mexico.

  • EnerNOC's GREEN, GREEN program, motivates their employees to become energy conscious consumers and offers an innovative three-tiered incentive program which includes cash bonuses for influencing others to become energy efficient. They also offer a $100/month subsidy for employees who purchase hybrid cars.

  • ASES provides employees with an eco-pass for the entire Denver metro area.

Several organizations support alternative transportation options in a variety of ways including sponsoring hybrid car purchase or lease incentive plans, providing commuter transit subsidies, offer carpooling transit allowances and free bicycles for employees within pedaling distance of work. Some firms up the ante and hold contests that reward employees with cash prizes for using alternative transportation means to and from work.

Hybrid car subsidy benefits appear to be an employee favorite in most parts of the country. However in New York City, many folks would prefer not having the burden of a car, even a hybrid car. At altPower a Solar Power firm in New York City, employees are provided with a travel check that enables free subway and bus transportation throughout the five boroughs of New York City.

Another interesting green employee benefit provides employees with Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) retirement plan and 401K options. NRG systems offers several SRI employee options, however, many organizations have yet to do so. "401K plans traditionally don't offer an SRI option", states Zoë Van Schyndel, Founder of H3 Capital, an SRI Fund Manager and, Lecturer in Finance at the University of Miami's School of Business. "There are a lot of funds out there; however they are not easily accessed by traditional 401k plans. There appears to be a disconnect between investor interest and current product offerings."

Dawn E. Dzurilla is Founder and President of Gaia Human Capital Consultants, an Executive Search Consulting firm solely dedicated to providing recruitment solutions specifically for renewable energy, environmental and corporate sustainability organizations and non-profits. She has twenty years of recruitment experience and approximately ten years of environmental & corporate sustainability experience, including Co-Founding an innovative Socially Responsible Investment Management (SRI) firm, which integrates personal, societal values and environmental concerns with individual investment decisions. She is a resident of Naples, FL and New York City.

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