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Refreshed Sustainability Priorities for North American Electric Power Industry

Posted to EPRI in the Utility Management Group
image credit: EPRI
Fiona Baker's picture
Senior Project Manager Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

Fiona Baker is the senior project manager for the Strategic Sustainability Science Program at EPRI. 

  • Member since 2021
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  • Aug 12, 2021
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The importance of North American utilities’ essential services to customers and the economy requires energy companies to think long-term about their priorities, investments, and future states. As companies plan into the coming decades, understanding the trends and priorities of other utilities and stakeholders can provide critical insights to help shape their own focus, interests, and concerns. Recognizing that capturing a birds-eye view can be a challenge, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) has identified and updated sustainability priority issues for the North American Electric Power Industry over the past eight years. 


Now in its third iteration, the focus has shifted from “sustainability priority issues” to “sustainability priorities,” reflecting the maturing outlook within the electric power sector that sustainability is more than a set of issues that need management. Instead, sustainability has evolved into an opportunity to build long-term strength, resiliency and even value creation for businesses. With this shift in mind, EPRI defines the sustainability priorities as economic, environmental, and social factors that have the potential to influence the long-term value creation of an electric power company and its stakeholders. 


An initial assessment helped identify 24 preliminary priorities and themes within the industry which were then validated by stakeholders and outside electrical power companies in the second phase. In the end, EPRI identified 20 sustainability priorities, three sustainability management elements, and three emerging priorities within the North American electric utilities industry. 


Published in June, the assessment investigates internal and external perspectives on current priorities, each priority’s level of impact on electric power companies, and the level of impact electrical power companies are having on that priority. EPRI also studied how stakeholders perceive the current performance of electric power companies, and how electric power companies perceive their own performance in managing sustainability priorities – identifying areas of alignment and disagreement to inform further evaluation. 


As a continuation of previous work, priorities are intentionally unranked. With significant differences among electrical power companies, from geographic footprint to ownership structure, an industry-wide ranking could be misleading. Instead, EPRI assesses each priority on an issue-by-issue basis and encourages individual companies to engage with internal and external stakeholder to identify their own priorities. 


In addition to current sustainability priorities, EPRI’s assessment captured two new, important categories. The first is Emerging Priorities, which received notable support and backing. These may be priorities for individual companies but did not have the sufficient level to qualify on the priority list across the industry. These include Circular Economy, Human Rights, and Just Transition. 


The second new category captures factors which apply to and support the handling of all sustainability priorities. EPRI refers to these as Sustainability Management Elements, which include Governance, Innovation, and Risk Management. These are broad-based approaches that could not exist as standalone priorities. 


EPRI encourages interested stakeholders to review the findings and insights from its Sustainability Priorities for North American Electric Power Industry in its entirety and not as standalone pieces. This research can inform companies’ focus and activities pertaining to sustainability programs, reporting efforts, and engagement with both internal colleagues (such as investor relations, risk management, and communications) and external stakeholders (including customers, investors, and non-government organizations). By better understanding the full landscape, electric power companies can be well equipped to determine their specific company’s prioritization and focus for the future.  
 

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