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The Greenest Organizations in the US: Who Uses the Most Renewable Energy?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released the updated list of the top 50 organizations in the US that get their electricity from "green power." The rankings are listed in order of annual green power usage in kilowatt-hours (kWh), though there's enough data to call attention to groups in different ways, for how effectively they've brought renewable-generated electricity into their usage profile, and whether they've taken further steps to generate their own renewable energy power.

The EPA defines "green power" as renewable energy sources with the highest environmental benefits: solar, wind, geothermal, biogas, some biomass, and low-impact small hydro.

The EPA's default rankings, based on annualized kWh usage of green power (partner contract amounts, not calendar year totals), shows a familiar computing tandem at the top: Intel and Microsoft, who together consume roughly 5 billion kWh annually from "green power." Microsoft nearly doubled its green power usage over the past year and now gets 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Kohl's, Whole Foods, and Wal-Mart round out the top five. Groups that doubled (or more) their usage include the Department of Energy (No.6, nearly 700 million kWh), Lockheed Martin (No. 16, 546 million kWh), the District of Columbia (No. 11, 534 million kWh), and Dell (No. 23, 218 million kWh).

Within that slice of big electricity users, some have managed to incorporate a lot more from renewable energy sources more than others. Apple, which surged up the EPA's list to No. 10, recently proclaimed that renewables contribute 75 percent of its entire corporate operations energy needs, and that its data centers are now powered by 100 percent renewable energy. In fact 16 of the 50 companies get a full 100 percent of their energy needs from renewable sources -- and eight of them actually exceed 100 percent. Those overachievers span a wide range of usage, from Intel's 3.1 billion kWh spread across a range of renewable sources, to Mohawk Paper's 113 million kWh fueled by wind.

After rating highly in last year's EPA top-50 list specifically for its greenest regional operations in Texas and California, retail giant Wal-Mart is now ranked according to its practices company-wide, getting just 4 percent of its overall electricity from renewable sources. Nonetheless Wal-Mart pledged this week to install solar power on at least 1000 U.S. rooftops and facilities by 2020, toward driving production or procurement of 7 billion kWh of renewable energy globally, while reducing its energy intensity by 20 percent vs. 2010 levels. Others with a long way to go for significant renewable energy mix include Safeway (3 percent), the US Air Force (4 percent), Sprint (5 percent), the US Department of Veterans Affairs (6 percent), and Ahold (7 percent). Even the DOE has plenty of ceiling at just 14 percent of total electricity use from renewable sources.

Another sorting of the EPA data shows 20 companies, organizations, and municipalities used at least 6 million kWh from on-site green power in 2012, and combined consumed more than 780 million kWh of green power annually. Among them were several large recognizable corporations (Wal-Mart, Apple, Coca-Cola, and SC Johnson), plus the US Air Force and eight cities and municipalities in California and Oregon.

And another metric of renewable energy commitment: 53 organizations have signed long-term contracts to purchase green power for five or more years. Ten groups have purchasing agreements for 20 years or more, all universities and municipalities.

Not appearing on the EPA's list is top furniture retailer Ikea, long a renewable energy advocate, which recently committed to doubling its renewable energy investments to $4 billion by 2020, and achieve 100 percent of energy consumption from renewable sources for its stores as well as subcontractors. The company has been investing in solar energy mainly in the U.S. and wind in northern Europe, covering 34 percent of its energy consumption.

Some might question the EPA's rankings as unfairly weighting by default the amount of usage. (That's why we re-sorted them by percentage of usage derived from renewable energy). By definition that pulls the spotlight away from the thousands of smaller businesses and individuals who have embraced renewable energy. Or from the amount of onsite renewable energy production, which might be argued demonstrates another level of commitment. Every day we hear about all kinds of small businesses and households who are embracing renewable energy. Bottom line: it's all going in the right directions to the same end.

While some corporations put tangible value on environmental stewardship, and maybe even the PR of recognition for doing so, there's a bigger reason they're embracing renewable energy: it makes financial sense. Most large corporations require deep and lengthy internal approval processes for any major initiatives, on top of what would be required for, say, extending investments into energy procurement, or local permitting and siting for an on-site generation project. Their collective commitment recognized by the EPA here demonstrates that renewable energy isn't just responsible to the planet and to each other, it can save money.

Lead image: Business man at desk in nature via Shutterstock

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