As the climate crisis has pushed the evolution and growth of the clean energy industry over the last two decades, NativeEnergy has been among the companies on the frontlines. The Vermont-based company develops wind, water, biogas, solar, and other renewable energy and clean water projects that generate carbon offsets and partners with other businesses looking to mitigate their climate impact. Increasingly, the projects go beyond taking carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to create environmental benefit and mitigate the effects of climate change.
This transition from doing less harm to having a positive impact will be necessary to avoid the worst predicted impacts of climate change. And for people and companies looking to have a hand in mitigating the climate crisis — whether to de-risk a company’s outlook, protect future markets and supply chains, or to build a resilient, human-centered approach to the business’s development, or otherwise — learning how to approach the full scope of a company’s emissions along the supply chain and understand how carbon offsets can be more or less effective depending on the project are two huge and important pieces of the puzzle. That’s where specialists like NativeEnergy, which also provides funding to establish more innovative solutions not currently supported by the market, come in.
By developing projects that address and act to reverse the accelerating climate crisis, NativeEnergy creates benefit for communities across North America as well as collective benefit for the environment and the companies is works with — a winning multistakeholder approach for the Certified B Corporation, a designation that reflects creating benefit for people and planet as well as the bottom line. As more companies realize and act upon the need to address their climate impact, NativeEnergy has seen interest in its projects grow in scale and build a cumulative effect. Its projects meet internationally recognized standards, align with relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals, and produce measurable results, giving companies looking to go beyond buying offsets a meaningful option.
As part of my research of purpose-driven companies, I recently spoke with Jennifer Cooper, vice president at NativeEnergy, to learn more about its latest projects that are helping companies take climate-positive action through regenerative strategies. She explained how companies can look to their own actions, supply chains, and climate responsibility and take effective steps to make meaning change.
Chris Marquis: Can you explain the history of the company and how its projects have evolved through the years?
Jennifer Cooper: Since Native began, the focus was on how to enable and fund change, with a structure to help create and make projects happen that the voluntary carbon market at that time was not supporting. So the model that NativeEnergy used then and continues to use today is to anticipate and bring forward the amount of money that would come from carbon credit sales over the life of the project — bring them to year one and year two of that project. And not just because, but specifically in order to, unlock the types of changes that people, communities and business wish to see.
There are a lot of carbon projects out there that work with the current voluntary carbon offset market — where the changes are made, the climate and other benefits are measured, the credits are issued and sold, and then money returns to whomever took that action. The focus for NativeEnergy is on the types of changes, projects, where that doesn’t work. By creating projects withcompanies who are looking to do more than simply offsets, we bring money forwardto catalyze more climate action and create change that otherwise would not happen.
Marquis: What are some of NativeEnergy’s newer projects? What’s ahead for you and your partners?
Cooper: Most recently we are focusing on regenerative agriculture, although admittedly that’s a broad, poorly defined term. “Soil is the new wind” in some respects, as our co-founder Tom Stoddard says, because there is great potential for it to be at least part of the solution to high levels of CO2 in our atmosphere and improved soil health has so many benefits for farms and ranches and our food systems.
Specifically our team is looking at rotational cattle grazing to increase carbon sequestration in grasslands. But there are some important barriers, like access to upfront capital and uncertainty for farms around when productivity gains may be realized from carbon sequestered into soils.. So it can be ideal to bring money upfront, to de-risk change as much as possible for the farms and ranches and catalyze that shift to regenerative more quickly. Climate finance is by no means the only way to do that, but it’s certainly one way to help catalyze that transition.
A recent example of a regenerative agriculture project is operating in Montana, and we have defined the project scope to encompass the northern Great Plains area of the U.S. We are working with ranchers and a nonprofit partner in this region of Montana called the Western Sustainability Exchange to adopt certain practices that are linked to carbon sequestration and known to draw increasing amounts of carbon down into the soils degraded by decades of overgrazing.
The ranchers essentially put together a grazing management plan, which typically has them grazing more cattle on a smaller plot of grasses for a short period of time. Then they move the cattle to another plot to graze it right down and leave that first plot for a long period before the cattle return to it. This provides time those grasses need to regrow and enable their roots to reach deep into the soils. It stops what commonly happens, which is a selective grazing when the cattle roll over thousands of acres picking their favorite grasses but never chomping everything right down to the soil. You also get a lot more trampling, including trampling of manure into the soil, which are good things for grassland and soil health.
With grasses, it can take a few years before you actually have a measurable amount of carbon in the soil. We as a society shouldn’t be asking farms and ranches to take on the cost and the risk and the figuring out of how to do the practices and then get the paybacks in terms of productivity and benefits later on. It’s right for emitters and polluters like ourselves to step up and try to help with that transition.
Marquis: A lot of the larger companies I’ve talked with are trying carbon offset work with companies like yours. How does your work differ between large and small companies in your portfolio?
Cooper: They’re generally the same, but there’s one key way that it’s different. Whether we say larger companies or companies that have some ability to influence their supply chain, we are working with them to identify what causes the emissions in the things that they source and supply. What practices or activities are causing the emissions, and which ones are you able to help change? We’re not talking about facilities that the company owns but those that are many steps out in their supply chain.
In that instance, the companies we are working with are not necessarily looking to simply buy offsets and say they’re carbon neutral. Their priority is really, “How do we cause positive change, and support positive change that reduces the emissions profile of what we are sourcing? We’re doing the things we can where we have a direct ability to control or change them, but they’re tiny compared to the materials that we’re sourcing. We want to do more.”
Often offsets are the result because they are a way to measure the impact you had in a way that the company can report and it will be recognized. It’s really that group of companies that is looking to make change that is meaningful, measurable, verifiable. The smaller companies are looking for ways to connect to the things they buy in the places that they do business, and we always try to make that connection when we can. But they are not directly digging into specific sourcing regions and analyzing that.
I don’t think we have a unique model, but we’re definitely one of the options for companies that want to do a little bit more than just make a purchase, check a box, and be done. They want to know that they’re somehow creating or causing change in the world, and in particular for the B Corp community. How can these dollars create some change in the world to be where we need to be holding at 1.5 degrees of warming? We need to transition our agricultural systems, our energy systems, our building infrastructure, housing. You can be part of that through something like an offset, and in other ways it has to be more.
Marquis: It seems your approach is to more holistically understand the impacts of the company and then create a system to address that in a more fundamental way. Does this need to be a bespoke type of work that you do for companies or can it be more off the shelf? What type of variation do you incorporate to make sure it’s really substantive?
Cooper: I’ll speak just specifically about the projects for which we are the developers. Our portfolio has 80-plus projects to which we’ve brought over $40 million of investment over the past 20 years, which should be so much higher. But we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. The projects that we are developing are the ones where we’re really asking ourselves early in our development process, “Is this going to happen? Does this project need our particular model of finance? Is this an important change that the world needs, that we need to see as part of our climate solution?” We’re also looking for biodiversity benefits and social impact, but we’re monetizing the carbon aspect of it, so we tend to have that as a lens.
For the grazing project in Montana, we’re saying if we can succeed here, we believe there will be a number of companies that want to be part of it. This is distinct from first talking to those companies and getting them on board and then developing the project.
We decide that this needs to happen, we think it’s possible, and we believe that there will be a number of companies out there who want to help make it work. But some of our projects are directly very bespoke. We’re on Ben & Jerry’s dairy farms installing digesters with their dairy farmers specifically for them, for example.
Marquis: What has being a part of the B Corp community meant for your company? How has that helped create key partnerships and relationships?
Cooper: Becoming a B Corp and then a benefit corporation was a really natural extension of the ethos of using data for impact, and I think I know many other B Corps could say the same — that they embodied that B Corp mindset before they became B Corps. That being said, what being a B Corp has taught us is that we just have so much more to do, and there’s so much we could be doing better. That is the highest praise that I can give to the B Corp community. We’re a company focused on climate and doing good, but the bar is so high in the B Corp community. It’s just a great place to keep yourself challenged and striving for more and to do better.
At a really high level, the B Corp community has a respected voice and can use that voice to advocate for changes in the community, changes in the state and federal level, and other ways to influence the systemic infrastructural type changes that we need to see. It would be important that the B Corp community understand, especially those newer to the topic, that just purchasing a certain number of offsets to address a calculated emissions footprint can’t be where we stop. We have to consider where we can advance and cause change — the major, lasting changes that we need to see. Members of the B Corp community are well-suited to do that in collaboration with each other.