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Corporate America Is Buying More Clean Energy Than Power Utilities

Want to get solar and wind power off the ground? It might be smarter to turn to Apple or Google rather than the power company.

These days, the biggest buyers of renewable energy aren't utilities. They're corporations like Google, Walmart, and Owens Corning. Over the last year and a half, there's been a surge of power purchases first by tech companies and more recently by more mainstream businesses, such as General Motors and Steelcase.

And, in some cases, companies are not only buying up power from a solar field or wind farm operator. They're actually investing and running the plant themselves, or selling on power they don't need. Ikea has invested in wind turbines in Texas and Illinois. And Apple has applied to sell on excess electricity as part of its $848 million California solar project (the new company would be called Apple Energy LLC).

Analysts say corporate players are increasingly driving decision-making in the large-scale energy market. "We've now reached the point where these companies that have shown leadership on renewables are doing that at a greater scale than utilities," says Ian Kelly, manager of Rocky Mountain Institute's Business Renewables Center. "It puts pressure on utilities to either offer renewable energy or see these companies go out and secure it directly themselves and leave utilities out of the picture."

Until 2015, more than 90% of corporate purchases were in wind farms. Then, last year, solar took up 20% of the total. As prices continue to fall, solar is likely to become more prominent. As well as utility-scale purchases, retailers like Walmart, Ikea, and Target are also investing heavily in their own rooftop systems.

Corporate America's embrace of renewables is driven by several factors, Kelly says. Health care provider Kaiser Permanente pointed to the health effects of climate change. Ikea has reported cost savings. Others see the investment as more of a hedge against prices rising for traditional forms of power. "They are using it to fix electricity prices relative to their current position, which leaves them open to what electricity prices do over time. It's more about risk management than trying to make money on the transaction itself," he says.

Typically, companies sign a power purchase agreement that locks in a price for 10 years or more. A recent survey by PwC of large power buyers found almost three-quarters were in the process of making such purchases.

"Most of the impediments [to market growth] are within companies themselves," Kelly says. "They need to understand how these transactions work because energy may not be part of their core business. As they become more aware of the opportunity, we would expect to see it grow faster."

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