Commentary: How Amazon’s HQ2 could advance the clean energy economy

Amazon encouraged cities to think boldly about how its second headquarters — also called “HQ2” — could enhance and transform their communities. We urge both Amazon and the bidding cities to adopt the same enterprising and transformative mindset regarding HQ2’s role in shaping the future of energy.

Amazon has impressive green credentials. The e-commerce giant is a top corporate purchaser of clean energy and is on its way to being 100 percent renewable. Buildings at its Seattle campus incorporate LED lighting and waste-heat recovery, operating at the forefront of energy efficiency. Now, by choosing which city will host its coveted HQ2, Amazon is paying close attention to sustainability criteria, such as utility incentives for clean energy development and mass transit options for employees.

We encourage Amazon to reward proposals that extend clean energy benefits beyond the borders of HQ2, to enhance sustainability throughout the host city and state. Equally important, we call on the 20 finalist cities to make public all sustainability provisions of their HQ2 proposals. We understand that cities are keeping certain incentives confidential to maintain a competitive edge. However, clean energy commitments should not be treated as private trade secrets, but rather as public best practices to promote and share.

INSIGHT: Why the biggest winners in Amazon’s HQ2 contest will be white men.

The 19 U.S. cities and regions vying to attract HQ2 demonstrate widely varying degrees of commitment to sustainability in their proposals. For example, Boston touts its top rank in energy efficiency and its Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Philadelphia trumpets its abundant mass transit and bike lanes. Beyond promoting the Colorado Energy Plan, Denver details its utility’s investment in energy innovation and ability to provide 100-percent renewable energy services.

Other cities’ proposals offer little in the way of clean energy provisions — or have not divulged such elements publicly. For example, Raleigh does not seem to discuss clean energy in its public proposal. New York City highlights its extensive subway system but does not outline specific clean energy plans. Austin has kept most of its proposal a secret, providing only vague references to sustainability in its public materials.

On Amazon’s end, HQ2 can serve as a catalyst to accelerate citywide and statewide clean energy initiatives, extending well beyond the new campus’s perimeter. Even though HQ2 may add up to 8 million square feet of office space, its energy consumption will be small relative to a large metropolitan area. It would only require a fraction of the power output of a typical coal or natural gas power plant.

One venue where Amazon could maximize its sustainability impact is through securing access to renewable energy. Aside from covering HQ2 rooftops with solar panels, Amazon’s ability to procure renewable power varies with the local electricity market structure. The company has an important choice to make.

CITY HALL: Austin council member accuses city, chamber for mishandling Amazon pursuit.

Amazon can conveniently locate HQ2 in one of 13 American cities where deregulated power markets allow customers to choose their renewable energy suppliers. Alternatively, if located within a regulated market such as Atlanta, Denver or Raleigh, Amazon can buy renewable energy from the utility through existing “green tariff” programs. Here, Amazon has the opportunity to join Google and others in using its corporate influence to expand green tariffs statewide, including to residential customers.

As Amazon HQ2 promises to bring 21st century jobs to its new host community, we hope that it also brings the 21st century energy ecosystem with it: carbon-free, smart and accessible energy infrastructure, technologies and markets.

Leibowicz is an assistant professor of operations research and industrial engineering at the University of Texas. Farhat is an energy consultant.

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