Episode 053: Heather Schrock from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation
In Episode 53 of the TEN7 Podcast, Ivan Stegic sits down for a chat with Heather Schrock, Environmental Products Representative for the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), a Portland, OR non-profit that empowers business to be in balance with the environment through a full suite of products, programs and custom solutions that help address the environmental footprint. Subscribe to the podcast. Here's what we're discussing in this episode:
- Origins of Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) and their mission today
- The difference between Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), Water Restoration Certificates (WRCs) and Carbon Offsets
- How RECs work (because you can’t identify which electrons in the grid are created by renewable energy)
- The counterintuitive process of BEF making money from carbon offsets (hint: it’s like buying the squeaky toy from the Humane Society)
- The part when Ivan points out that their website needs a DONATE button!
- The projects BEF has in their “offset portfolio” from stream restorations in rural areas to urban green infrastructure projects in Los Angeles
- Why BEF is committed to diversity, inclusion and equity
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone you're listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I'm your host Ivan Stegic. My title at TEN7 is President, and for the last few years, as I’ve extracted myself from running the day to day operations of the company, I’ve been afforded more time to focus on the people in our team. As a result, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how, as a company, we can make a difference in peoples’ lives, and whether we can have a broader impact than the immediate members of the team. Sure, there’s health insurance and 401(K)’s and time off that we offer as benefits. But what else can we do to make all of us sustainable? And how can we be nicer to the environment in our own daily operations? Well, I’m proud to say that as of the beginning of this year, TEN7 started to purchase renewable energy certificates and water restoration credits for every full-time employee at TEN7 on a quarterly basis. And, we’re not just purchasing the average amount a home uses in the U.S., we’re purchasing a little more. I’m sure there’s a claim we can make about that as a company somewhere, but I’m not 100% certain what that claim might be, which brings me to our guest today, who will be able to give me some sort of clarity around the actual statement I can make around the certificates we’re buying. My guest today is Heather Schrock, and she is the Environmental Products Representative at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, in Portland, Oregon. That’s BEF for short, maybe it’s “BEF”, I’ll have to ask you Heather. I’d like to spend the time today finding out more about BEF and why the organizations work today is so much more important to us as a society, than it ever has been. So, hello Heather. Welcome to the Podcast.
HEATHER SCHROCK: Hello there! Thanks so much for having me.
IVAN: It’s awesome to be talking to you. Is it B-E-F or is it BEF? (laughing)
HEATHER: Well, I think B-E-F is fine. BEF reminds me of my high school water polo coach, whose name was Bif, and I don’t really need to be reminded of that, so, B-E-F works great.
IVAN: Great. And Bif reminds me of Back to the Future, and the guy who had that truck of manure fall on him. (laughing)
HEATHER: (laughing) Yes, it’s also that Bif.
IVAN: So, BEF is the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, it’s a registered 501(C)3 nonprofit. I’d love to hear about the origins of BEF. Where were you founded? What was your mission back then? Tell us something about that.
HEATHER: Sure. So, Bonneville Environmental Foundation has been around for about 20 years, we just celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2018. We were founded in Portland, Oregon, and mainly we were founded to see if we could make some impact in the areas of both water restoration and climate change, and that has been the nexus at which we have worked since then.
IVAN: And, so, that kind of change is global in nature. It’s a big idea to follow. So, has your mission changed at all in the last 20 years?
HEATHER: The mission itself is essentially the same. I would say what’s changed the most has been our approaches and what has become relevant over time as the world has changed. So, 20 years ago was a very different world from a renewable energy perspective, from a water scarcity perspective. So, we consider ourselves kind of an entrepreneurial and innovative nonprofit. So, as things change we try to adapt and move with those changes to stay on the front and of anything that we can do to make an impact. And, while it is global, our work does mainly focus in North America, mostly in the United States, but we do hope that there might be a ripple effect outwards.
IVAN: It seems like there’s a fair amount of climate change denial that we hear about in the news. And I feel like that’s been in my own psyche more in the last 5-10 years than it’s ever been, because it seems like we’re at a critical juncture these days. I’m not sure what it was like 20 years ago. I know that about 30 years ago, when I was still in South Africa, I would watch tv and there was always some scary thing about CFCs and the ozone layer. That’s as far as I could remember going back. What was the state of climate change denial like 20 years ago? Because I would imagine that things have changed, or maybe they haven’t.
HEATHER: Well, I think about 20 years ago, and, of course I wasn’t with the organization 20 years ago, but, just from my own recall and my own memory, it wasn’t even called that yet, of course. It was called global warming at that time. It’s kind of evolved into climate change as a more appropriate thing to call it. I think just since then we just have more and more science that keeps on piling up and piling up, that supports that this is something that is real, it is happening, and it is caused by humans. But, there certain is, as we know, a lot of denial out there. And in my job and BEF in general, we don’t really spend a lot of time trying to convince people, we just do the work that we know and hope will make a change. There are lots of organizations out there that do focus more on changing people’s minds and getting more people on board. We do other types of work, even though that work is very important. We focus on trying to solve the problems that will, hopefully, maybe even reverse climate change someday, even though that’s a huge thing to say, we like to be hopeful.
IVAN: I love it. I want to be hopeful as well. I think it’s within our reach, the more we do as organizations, as small businesses, as large businesses, in the everyday life we have, I think the more of a positive effect we can have. Now, you mentioned your role at BEF. Your title is Environmental Products Representative. What does your day to day look like at BEF?
HEATHER: It’s funny you mention my title, because I believe I may have a title change soon. But, essentially, my work at Bonneville Environmental Foundation is under the business development umbrella. So, I interact with businesses and entities, such as governments, cities, counties, universities, and other nonprofits, who are interested in looking at their own impact, especially from a water carbon and energy perspective, and doing something about it. The reason I represent the environmental products is because those are one solution, and one approach that a business can take to address their environmental impacts, and of course there are lots of other approaches as well that I like to discuss with businesses. From an energy perspective obviously there’s efficiencies and conserving energy. But at the end of the day, most businesses, I don’t know any business that doesn’t have any footprint at all, there is some effect. And when there’s something left there, what we call an unavoidable footprint, we consider the solution of using something like a renewable energy certificate, like you guys have, carbon offsets, and the water restoration certificates as a way to balance the remaining, unavoidable environmental footprint.
IVAN: Let’s talk about those three things you just mentioned. The Water Restoration Certificates, the Renewable Energy Certificates and the Carbon Offsets. Can you give me a high-level description to each of these three things that we just talked about?
HEATHER: So, a Renewable Energy Certificate… Actually, let me start with offsets, since those were first on the market. A Carbon Offset represents one metric ton of greenhouse gases that has been in some way mitigated, sequestered, removed from the atmosphere. And there’s lots of different ways to do that, such as, sustainable forestry, capturing landfill gas, capturing methane from dairy farms and such. A Renewable Energy Certificate represents 1,000 kilowatt hours of renewable electricity. So that would be something like solar or wind, and that also can represent some greenhouse gas emissions reductions. But it is a kilowatt hour per kilowatt hour match, as opposed to matching the metric tons of greenhouse gases. Lastly, the Water Restoration Certificate represents 1,000 gallons of water restored to its natural environment, or restored to a critically depleted watershed, or water resource. So, all of these tools or products are essentially a financial tool at the end of the day. And they enable entities of all sizes, from small businesses to individuals, to large Fortune 500 companies, they allow everyone access to the ability to offset their footprint, so you don’t have to be a huge corporation with a million dollars to invest in a stream restoration project. You as a small company, as you have done, can buy smaller amounts and have a piece of that stream restoration in a 1,000 increment. And the collective impact of many businesses doing that is what creates change and moves the needle on all of these carbon sequestering, renewable energy and water restoration projects.
IVAN: I recall that this was based on a law of some sort in the United States Congress. Is that accurate?
HEATHER: Hmm, that is a good question. You mean the creation of carbon offsets was based on a law?
IVAN: Yeah, I seem to recall that there was some law that mandated some sort of an energy market or credit market, or something. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s not. Maybe this was something that organically happened. I’m just curious about how the idea of selling credits or offsets for things that you don’t actually see and own. Right? This is almost a virtual market that TEN7 is buying from, that anyone can buy from, and I thought it was based on a law, but maybe it wasn’t.
HEATHER: Well, and I may be wrong about this, I don’t think it was based on a law. What I understand about these markets is that they are market solutions that were created because law and government wasn’t moving fast enough to make the change that needs to be made. So, these market solutions are a way to, as I said, move that needle forward and create the change that allows these projects to happen. These projects where it will be protecting so much more forest and creating so much more renewable energy resources, than we would have if we didn’t have that financial incentive, that we’d be able to sell those certificates from those projects to help put into creating more projects. I could be wrong about that, but, I have not heard that it was created based on a law.
IVAN: Well, your explanation sounds a whole lot more reasonable than mine. That’s what happens in supply and demand markets, right. They just happen because someone else is not doing what is expected. So, I would say that makes more sense.
HEATHER: (laughing) It’s possible, and I apologize if I am erroneous in that, but I will be madly googling it after this Podcast, and we might have to print something afterwards, if there’s a correction to be made. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) And, you know, we’ll publish links to the actual information in the transcript as well. So, for those of you listening, be sure to check the website. The transcript will contain actual links. So, I want to go a little deeper into the Renewable Energy Certificate. So, we’re buying these RECs and these WRC’s from you. We’re purchasing more than the average U.S. household per year. I love that every person at TEN7 gets a PDF of a certificate via email every quarter, and that the certificate itself is as specific as it is. I want to read what my certificate said when I received it this month, “Big Sky Dairy Digester, located at the Big Sky Dairy near Gooding, ID, this new biodigester processes manure from about 4,700 dairy cows. This 1.3-megawatt waste-to-energy project is the first U.S. methane reduction project listed with the gold standard offsets certification system. Three megawatt hours of clean energy generated.” So, here’s what I would like you to explain for our listeners. How are those three megawatt hours of clean energy that were produced, how do they relate to the energy that I use in my home from January through March of this year? What did we actually buy?
HEATHER: Exactly. It’s a great question. What a renewable energy certificate is, is a representation of the environmental attributes of the clean energy that was produced by that biodigester for example. But the electrons, electrons when they go into the grid, you can’t actually track them or tag them or say, “this electron came from this biodigester, and this electron came from coal.” Electrons are just electrons, they’re neutral. But on the grid, we have all these different sources of electrons, and the reason the renewable energy certificate was created, was so that individuals and businesses who couldn’t put a solar panel on their roof, or who don’t have 46,000 cows, or how many there were, 4,600 cows, (laughing) to create renewable energy, so that they could make the claim that they are using renewable energy. They are getting the environmental attributes of that renewable energy. But, an electron is an electron, so whatever electrons are going into your house, even if you have a solar panel on your roof, only for certain times of day even, on sunny days, is that those electrons from that solar panel are going into your home, and actually being used at that time. More often than not, those electrons are just going into the grid and then coming out of the grid when you or someone needs them. So, the grid is like a big ocean. You put a drop of water in the ocean, it just becomes part of the ocean, and that’s very much how the grid works, the electricity grid. So, renewable energy certificates allow people to make those claims, and to put money toward creating more renewables on the grid. And that was the purpose of creating them. And it also made it attainable and made it so that you could get a slice of that, you could get one piece of that, even if you couldn’t afford an entire solar array, you could still try to match. It’s basically a matching. You’re matching the renewable energy kilowatt hours to the actual kilowatt hours that you’re consuming.
IVAN: So, all electrons are created equal. I like that. That’s a great explanation. I think I understand it a little bit better now. Now, the water restoration credits are a little different right? The renewable energy certificates are kind of industry wide, right? You can buy those from different organizations, but my understanding is that the water restoration credits are a little different. And, is it credits or certificate?
HEATHER: Officially, we do call them certificates, but you can say credits if you would like.
IVAN: (laughing) Ok, I’m going to say WRC, how’s that? Ok, so WRC’s are unique to BEF? Is that right?
HEATHER: That is correct. We did create WRC’s.
IVAN: And, tell me about why that happened and what you’re trying to achieve with that.
HEATHER: Well, again, we were looking for some kind of solution, something that would help us create change in the water restoration space. And, let me also mention that BEF was instrumental in creating the renewable energy certificate market as well. So we have some experience creating a market solution. Yes. So, it just kind of dawned on us, and this again, was before my time at BEF, but I’ve heard the story and now feel so much a part of it. But, at the time, we again had this situation where there were entities that wanted some kind of way to essentially kind of offset a water footprint, in the similar way you can offset a carbon footprint, with carbon offsets. And we as an organization, always looking and trying to innovate and find ways to fund the boots on the ground work, to make a change and to help heal our watersheds, were looking for something. So, this market solution idea came to us, and we created it. It took quite a few years actually, to really get it going, because we wanted it to have also the integrity behind it. So we needed to find third-party verifiers, we needed to make sure we could register the certificates so that they wouldn’t be double counted. So we couldn’t say we sold 100 to you and then sell that same 100 representatively to someone else. So, we did all that work and created the WRC, and it’s still unique to us, mainly because it’s not a viable market solution in the sense that somebody could just do that and make money. We do it because the money we make goes back into what we do as an organization. We do water restoration projects, and we support water restoration projects, so that money goes right back into our mission impact work. Whereas, you can sell carbon offsets and actually make money off it, we don’t sell WRC’s and make money in that sense. There’s no profit (laughing) in that sense. It’s really just a self-fulfilling prophecy of bringing that money in to continue to feedback into our water restoration projects.
IVAN: Tell me about how you can make money with carbon offsets. That sounds counterintuitive. Why would we be doing that?
HEATHER: Yes, there are many for profit and nonprofit companies that make money selling carbon offsets, because it was a market solution. And it was a way to not only put money back into the projects and get these carbon offset projects going. But somebody could make a living doing that, somebody could create a company and create viable business. And, that’s essentially what a successful market solution will always do, is, support business while supporting the investment, while supporting the project itself. This just happens to be a market solution that has an amazing environmental impact. And, for us, carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates, that is a way for us, as a nonprofit, to make some unrestricted revenue to continue, again, to put back into our project such as water restoration and our clean energy education programs. So, I like to compare it to a gift shop. Our environmental products is like our gift shop, just like you might go to the gift shop on your way out of the Humane Society and buy a squeaky toy for your dog. And the money that they make from that goes to running the Humane Society,. We sell these environmental products as a way to continue to support our nonprofit.
IVAN: That’s a great analogy. We have a lot of experience with the Animal Humane Society here in Minneapolis. That’s great. We love to be buying your squeaky toys. That’s great. (laughing) Ok, so we talked about WRC’s and RECs and the fact that you also offer carbon offsets. Now, water restoration certificates are unique to you, so I have to go to BEF to buy those. But I could buy these carbon offsets and the RECs from other organizations. Why should I buy them from you? I mean, you don’t have to sell me on it, I’m already doing that, but how are the products differentiated between your organizations and others, and why would we choose BEF?
HEATHER: Partly for the reasons I was just saying, that you’re buying our squeaky toys. We are a nonprofit. We are a mission-driven nonprofit, of course. And we are doing, in my opinion, some pretty incredible work in the water restoration world, and career connected clean energy education, so I feel like it’s great to know that you’re not only buying this environmental product, which is in and of itself important, but you are also supporting our nonprofit. And, we’re priced competitively with other providers, so you’re not necessarily tacking on an extra donation to us, it’s just built into the cost. So, whereas, you buy from a for profit, that margin goes for them to make a business, which is great, I’m not against businesses. Businesses should make money, But for us, you’re kind of getting a double whammy of supporting our nonprofit, while also making an impact in the environment and with your environmental footprint. We think that’s a pretty nice case to make to purchase from us, if you’re trying to make a decision, we think that’s pretty cool stuff.
IVAN: Let’s talk about your funding a little bit. You’re a nonprofit, so, you have to raise money. You have, obviously, a diverse range of funding, so there are certainly donors. I’m sure you guys have a grant writing part of your organization, as well, and of course, your selling all of these credits. Can you talk about how things are split up? Where does all that funding come from?
HEATHER: Off the top of my head, I don’t know if I can say exactly percentage wise where it all comes from, but I can say that we get a chunk of funding from grants, as you said. We do get money from Bonneville Power Administration, which is our namesake. So, for those of you listening who aren’t on the West coast, Bonneville Power Administration is the one who generates all the electricity from the dams. We have dams here that generated hydroelectricity, and they do other forms of power, but they’re known for their dams, especially Bonneville Dam, of course, which is, again, another namesake.
So we have funding from grant sources, and then most of the rest of our funding comes from our products and services, so the products that I sell, and we also do consulting, helping organizations and corporations develop their water stewardship strategies. For example, we’re actually a little different from most nonprofits in that we don’t typically do fundraising in the traditional sense. We don’t have galas, we don’t even have a donation button on our website. We typically like to give something for the money that we earn. So, we operate in a lot of ways, like a business, except for of course, there’s a big chunk that is grant funded. So, that’s kind of the two main revenue streams that we have coming in.
IVAN: That’s really interesting that you don’t have a donate button on your organization. I spent a fair amount of time on the website and I just realized that there’s no donate button. So, that’s unusual for a nonprofit.
HEATHER: And that may change. It hasn’t in 20 years, but who knows, it might change.
IVAN: I’d love to hear more about the projects that you have, that actually support all of these WRC’s and RECs. How many do you have? How are they chosen? It must be quite a sophisticated process and organization to choose the right projects and to continue bringing new ones in.
HEATHER: Right. You’re asking specifically about the water projects?
IVAN: All of the projects. I’m sure there are not just for the water ones.
HEATHER: Yeah, so I’ll just start with water, because that is, again, our more in-house piece. Because the water projects that we support are all directly, you know, if we’re going to create WRC’s it’s from a project that we, as an organization, personally support and are putting some energy behind. Whereas with offsets and RECs, we’re on the retailer side of that relationship. So, we do vet and choose the projects carefully. For RECs there’s greenie, the certification for RECs, and then for offsets there’s several certifications that we mainly work with four or five of them, third-party verifiers, and we just like to have a nice array of those projects that we think people would be interested in. Currently in our offset portfolio we have various things from landfill gas to forestry projects. We have an interesting marine project, where it’s a project that makes marine shipping vessels more efficient and also protects some of the sea life. So, always some interesting stuff there. But the water projects, there’s actually, and I’ll send you the link later, we have a project bank on our businessforwater.org website. So, we have a separate website that we send people to, that really, specifically talks about our water stewardship business engagements, and there’s a project bank, which we started because we were finding with water projects it was getting a little more difficult, whereas with carbon offsets and RECs, there’s almost an infinite supply. But with water projects, it’s a little more difficult to match the needs of the funder or the person who wants to buy those water WRC’s or invest in that type of water project, trying to matchmake between the funder and the project, can be quite difficult trying to get something in their region, something where they have an impact, something that aligns with their goals and their ideals around what a water stewardship project should look like. So, we started this project bank and there’s now, just scrolling through it, several, maybe dozens, of water projects that are in various stages of development. So, some of them are done, some of them are in the middle, some of them still need funding, have funding gaps, but there’s some great, if you go to that link, again, which I’ll send you later, you can see examples of all these amazing water projects. And, again, we started this bank so that we could solicit water projects from other organizations who have projects that need funding, and then, so we can come in and help matchmake the funders to these projects.
IVAN: That’s wonderful. That’s businessforwater.org and we’ll link to that in the transcripts on our website. Is there one particular project that sticks out for you? Do you have a favorite?
HEATHER: A favorite water project?
HEATHER: Oh gosh, there’s some really cool ones. Let me think about that. So, most of our water projects, historically, have been very much your traditional type water leasing type projects, where we’re buying water leasing rights to keep the water in the stream, instead of having it all go to irrigation. Those are very common types of water restoration projects. Irrigation upgrades, things like that. We’ve recently branched out into more urban and green infrastructure type projects, so there’s one we’re undertaking in Los Angeles, which is a green infrastructure project that’s a collaboration with Los Angeles City Council. There’s a neighborhood association and also an organization called Heal the Bay, and we’re all working together to create this park that will have also an impact on the neighborhood. It will be a safe place for people to play and move, and there will be fitness stations, but the park itself will serve as a water quality improvement project in the Los Angeles River Watershed. So, that’s really exciting, that we’re going to be able to save hundreds of gallons of potable water that will serve this neighborhood, but also creating this safe and fun space for them to interact with. It’s turning what was just a block that had nothing on it, that was not a safe place to be, into something that will be a neighborhood gathering spot.
IVAN: That’s wonderful. Usually when I think of the work that you do, I always imagine a valley between mountains somewhere with a river running through it. It’s always rural in my mind, and to hear that there are projects in urban areas, especially in LA, that’s a really wonderful concrete example, that, I think changes the way I think about this now. So, that’s awesome.
HEATHER: Great. Thanks. We’re excited to be going in that direction, as well, in addition to the stream between the mountains projects. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) Is there anything that you’re working on right now that’s important to the organization, besides everything you’re doing? Is there a big push for anything in particular that you wanted to mention?
HEATHER: Well, I will say this. Again, it’s hard to choose. Everything is important. So, I think what I’d like to mention, that’s really important, is actually something that’s going to be an overarching project for the entire organization, and that is our DEI initiative. We started about a year ago, looking at diversity, equity and inclusion, and the intersection of environmentalism there. The environmental world kind of has a bad rap when it comes to diversity and equity, and has been previously thought of as, that’s kind of the rich white persons brigade, and that’s unfortunate. We want to, as an organization, do our part to make sure that we are as inclusive as we can be, that our work is affecting all different types of people and that we are also bringing in more diverse people into our own organization. So, I would say that that is, very top of mind for us right now. And, I personally am on the DEI action team here at BEF, and it’s so important. Everybody has bought in. Everyone throughout our organization, from the very top, down, has bought in, and is putting this as a high priority for our organization as we evolve, that we are keenly aware of our own diversity and our own inclusiveness in our projects, and who we work with, and how we move forward through this space.
IVAN: That’s wonderful to hear. That’s absolutely something that is needed in every industry, especially in the tech industry that we’re a part of, and I commend you on doing the work for BEF and for your organization.
HEATHER: Thank you.
IVAN: Thank you, so much, for spending your time with me today. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.
HEATHER: You too. I really appreciate you giving me some time here today, as well, and I hope that I was able to share some things that were useful and interesting and I’ll go ahead and send you some links after this, if you’d like, to some of the things I was talking about, and it just was really wonderful to chat with you.
IVAN: It was wonderful chatting with you too. And, we’ll be sure to post those links on the transcript. You can find the Bonneville Environmental Foundation online at b-e-f.org and please consider supporting them by purchasing a renewable energy credit, or a carbon offset or a water restoration certificate for yourself, or even for your company, that would do our planet, our world, a whole lot of good. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message, we love hearing from you. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.