Guest blog: Why companies should mobilize the renewable energy supply chain

By Mike Casey, President and founder of Tigercomm, originally appearing on Renewable Energy World on September 4.

A big development in clean energy advocacy recently took place, and odds are you haven't heard about it.

Supply chain recruitment sounds dorky, but it’s one of the “killer apps” of pushing for favorable policies for an industry sector. More mature industries have had decades to develop their ability to leverage suppliers as a multiplier of their voice and clout. For every company in a particular industry, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of companies with financial stakes in how well that company’s entire sector does.

Though relatively young, clean energy sectors need supply chain recruitment now, not at a later stage of development. That’s because the incumbent energy sectors have woken up to the disruptive potential of wind and solar energy. They aren’t just sitting around waiting to go obsolete, but pushing back with aggressive use of policy influence and public relations to destabilize the popular public policies that level the playing field for wind and solar.

Check out the latest ad by the fossil fuel front group Institute for Energy Research on the left.

Never mind that fossil fuels have benefitted from government support for over 100 years.  

Roughly 18 months ago, clean energy sectors started experimenting with supply chain deployment from multi-company, nonprofit industry platforms. Those efforts have cast a wide net for companies that could break from just running their company to participating in some basic, pro-sector advocacy. These efforts have begun a difficult but necessary paradigm shift: sector advocacy as a normal part of running a clean energy company.

But Steve Trenholm, chairman of E.ON North America, wanted to try accelerating this process with a different approach (full disclosure — he’s a client). Steve saw that wind and solar company suppliers were the first to feel the cutbacks when the business environment was destabilized by policy attacks. And suppliers were often the last to be called when times got better.

He wanted to reach out to the supply chain of just one company — his. “If we want to shape policy and expand markets, we have to cultivate our suppliers as our advocates,” he says.

His idea was to hold a half-day supply chain “summit” at his Chicago headquarters. The summit was an opportunity to educate and activate suppliers on sharing their stories to impact policy decisions and, in essence, everyone’s bottom lines. While the summit was private, Steve has given me permission to write about what happened, including the replicable breakthrough that it represents for other companies.

In April, the leadership of more than 50 companies gathered — from enormous global construction companies to the manager of a hotel chain franchise near one of E.ON’s projects.  They heard from Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth about the importance of proactive contact with elected officials. She told them that she wanted to hear from companies in her district, that it’s the way government works.  

Steve is the only person who sits on the boards of both the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association. That enabled him to recruit the heads of both associations, as well as an experienced Washington lobbyist, to discuss the impact of supply chain company participation. E.ON followed up with tools, and even a live demonstration, for scheduling a meeting with a Senator’s office.

Several important things came through at the summit. For one, this was the first time most attendees had participated in an organized, coordinated effort to work on a particular issue. The ability to access elected official offices was demystified for many who had assumed scheduling appointments was impossible. Finally, suppliers wanted to help and were able to tell very compelling stories about local employment due to the wind and solar industries. Many participants expressed willingness to make appointments on the spot as the start of an organized, post-event tracking program established by E.ON.

“We started a conversation with our suppliers about how we all can evolve wind and solar; how to impact the bottom line; and, most importantly, how each and every company along the supply chain can do something to educate policymakers and the media,” said E.ON North America Vice President of External Affairs Kevin Gresham. He led the staff training on the nuts and bolts of legislator contact.

For the renewable energy sector, the Summit showed that with some planning and a modest budget, companies can play a vital role in supply chain recruitment. In fact, they are the best positioned to do so because they are the customers of the supply chain companies.

And, with this event, E.ON created a competitive advantage. The company now has a bench of self-motivated and trained advocates for common sense policies at the local and state levels. E.ON’s leadership team sees the momentum they are building with their supply chain, and this summit was just one of many they plan on holding.

For suppliers, taking the time to become an advocate for pro-renewable policies helps stabilize their sales environment and allows them to build closer relationships with customers who are asking for their help.

This event blazed a trail to something that clean energy industry advocates have been pursuing for several years. It was a success on the first try, and it returned immediate value to E.ON. Much like Elon Musk is giving away his patents, E.ON wants to encourage other companies to try their hand at these events.

How can companies engage their supply chain?

  • Forum: Host a supply chain summit, inviting your suppliers from across the board to participate.
  • Purpose: Clearly articulate the value proposition for suppliers to participate in the summit and why they should become advocates.
  • Thought leaders: Invite elected officials and industry advocates to share the importance of constituent advocacy and current state-of-play on policy.
  • Tools: Share low-effort, high-impact tools and resources — tips on drafting an op-ed, a sample form letter, even facilitate a scheduling call exercise to a legislator’s office.
  • Empower: Inspire your suppliers to be leaders, that it starts by sharing their story.  This can be extended to their employees and their own supply chain.

Practically every medium- or large-size company in the space should take a page from E.ON’s playbook. These events can put renewables in the game with other industries that have successfully leveraged the voice of their supply-chain stakeholders for years. There’s little to lose and a lot to gain.


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