US companies from General Electric to Wal-Mart have spent the past several years announcing initiatives on everything from efficient buildings to alternative energy to leading-edge technologies to combat global warming. Now, with the economy slowing, some of those projects look iffy.
In the past, companies shelved environmental initiatives when profits shrank. This time, despite some slowing in momentum, corporate America's "green" campaign will survive, analysts predict. The reason: In a world of $80-a-barrel oil, there is a business case for saving energy.
"In a downturn, some would back away from their current commitments," says Dan Esty, a professor of environmental law and policy at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "There could be stress in the next year or two, but I'm confident that investment in the environment will be higher." He estimates that 80 percent of corporations' green plans will go forward.
To date, the amount spent on such initiatives has been relatively modest. In 2005, US businesses spent some $3.5 billion in the US on renewable energy, says Allison Hannon of the Climate Group, a London-based nonprofit with offices in New York that is dedicated to reducing greenhouse gases. This compares with about $132 billion invested that year in conventional oil and gas, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
But spending on green projects is expected to accelerate. Mr. Esty estimates the total investment in the environmental area ranging from venture capital to actual investments will come to $100 billion in 2007. In March, for example, Bank of America announced it would commit $20 billion to green projects over 10 years. And last month at the Clinton Global Initiative, which is a project sponsored by the former president, Florida Power & Light announced it would spend $2.4 billion on energy-efficiency projects and install 300 megawatts of new solar-energy projects through 2012.
The challenge for business is that many economists think that by the middle of next year, the economy could be operating at a slower pace.
"Traditionally, in a slowdown people sharpen their pencils and cut things that are nice to have, feel good, or make you look good versus things that contribute to the bottom line," says Kenneth Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America in Arlington, Va. "Until now, the environmental changes have been an extra expense, but sometimes they pay off over a number of years."
Even executives who have announced green projects admit that some spending might be tempered at least over the short term depending on the economy.
"The investment can be rheostated," says Michael Chesser, chairman and CEO of Great Plains Energy, based in Kansas City, Mo. "In other words you can speed up or slow down, depending on how you see your demand going over the next couple of years."
Great Plains, which operates Kansas City Power & Light, spent $164 million in 2006 on 100 megawatts of wind energy. It is now deciding whether to go ahead with another 100-megawatt wind-energy project – enough electricity for 33,000 homes – in 2008.
In fact, economic uncertainties make energy efficiency a less expensive way to go, says Mr. Chesser. "When you build a major baseline plant, that's a commitment. It takes five years to build, and it's a big risk if the economy goes south," he explains. "With energy efficiency, you don't have that.... It has a lot of flexibility."
Still, energy efficiency costs money. In south Florida, Florida Power & Light is now testing a system on 50,000 homes that allows consumers to see the difference in their bills as the thermostat on the air conditioning goes up or down. To expand the pilot project to 4.5 million customer accounts, the company will spend $500 million.
Some investors view the downturn as an opportunity. Those burned by the real-estate slump or worried about slowing earnings growth should take a serious look at the long-term prospects of green companies, says Ms. Hannon of the Climate Group.
"Clean-tech funds are showing massive returns," she says. "When you look at the growth of renewables, it is projected to represent 20 percent of our energy supply by 2020. This is a massive opportunity."
One of those viewing a slowing economy as an opportunity is Environmental Capital Partners, which announced last month that it had raised $100 million to invest in mid-size green companies.
"A downturn is not so bad as long as it's within reason," says Chris Staudt, a principal of the newly opened New York-based firm, which is looking to make equity investments of $10 million to $25 million. "It could make companies we want to invest in more reasonably priced. And as companies get less expensive, we will be able to put on less debt, which can be dangerous for a company in a downturn."
Even in a downturn, Mr. Staudt believes green businesses will thrive. "Environmental sustainability is a sea change. You can no longer do business without taking the environment into account."