At a Nobel Forum session at Augsburg University this month, a molecular biologist, a Lutheran ethicist, and a businessman discussed the economics, environmental and ethical dimensions of declining reserves of fresh water.

“In our fight against climate change, we are missing a key weapon: better water management,” wrote one panelist in advance. “Better water management leads to energy savings and reduced carbon emissions. The more water you save, the less energy you use and CO2 emissions you generate.”

CEO Doug Baker of Ecolab, also an environmentalist, runs a $13 billion-plus enterprise that helps customer companies manage water, produce safe food and energy at 3 million locations around the globe, served by 48,000 Ecolab employees. 

Baker, 59, has been recognized as a leader in the burgeoning corporate-sustainability movement and a prophet of the opportunity to profit by helping customers conserve and recycle water and energy.

He knows more about dwindling fresh water reserves, industrial use of “gray water” and “toilet-to-tap” tech than any English major I’ve met.

“We can’t do things the way they’ve been done,” Baker said. “When you save and reuse water, you save money and do no environmental harm.”

Baker is a pragmatic champion of a greener America who doesn’t dispute climate change. He’s leading a growth list of Fortune 500 behemoths and small companies.

They produce “sustainability reports” for stakeholders to demonstrate how they use less natural resources per dollar of revenue. They use technology and innovation to cut waste and monitor results.

Last year, Ecolab helped customers, from Ford Motor to Marriott, save 171 billion gallons of fresh water. It’s on target to hit 300 billion gallons by 2030. It has reduced the water and energy-use footprint of its oil-and-gas extraction customers by 40 percent and will cut its own carbon output by 10 percent by 2020.

Nikos Avlonas, founder of the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence, told Forbes several months ago: “We found that about two thirds of companies with the highest sustainability rankings … had better financial performance than companies with lower rankings. Transparency and comprehensive sustainability goals are great business enablers. Stakeholders, including investors … and clients see opportunities and have more trust in these companies.”

The trends in corporate America, and the environmental movement, are too strong to bend to current anti-environment rhetoric.

In St. Cloud, the sewage-treatment plant generates so much of its own energy from a “biodigester” that converts waste gas into electricity, heat and fertilizer that the plant’s managers some days don’t need to buy electricity. They sell excess juice generated from adjacent solar arrays to the local utility.

“It comes down to how can you say ‘no’ to saving money and doing something for the environment,” Abby Finis, senior energy planner with the Great Plains Institute of Minneapolis, told the Star Tribune recently.

Solar has grown quickly in Minnesota, but still constitutes less than 2 percent of Minnesota electricity generated. Renewable energy has moved into second place as a source of electricity generation in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the cost of wind energy in Minnesota — even without tax credits — has dipped below energy produced from coal and natural gas, according to a report last spring by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which tracks power generation trends nationally.

The report was presented by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, two business-led nonprofit groups.

Renewable energy made up 25 percent of the state’s electricity generation in 2017, driven by wind, up from 23 percent in 2016. Wind power alone accounted for 18 percent of Minnesota’s generation last year.

Hydro and solar make up most of the rest of the renewable category. Coal, at 39 percent, is the declining king of Minnesota power production, followed by nuclear power at 23 percent and natural gas-fired power at 12 percent.

Xcel Energy powers 20 percent-plus of its multistate system with wind, up seven times in 15 years, and should hit 30 percent within three years.

According to an August report by Clean Energy, the state, added 1,522 clean-energy jobs (not including biofuels) last year, an increase of 2.6 percent, twice the rate of overall job growth, with about 40 percent in rural areas.

These jobs also, on average, pay better than the all-category average.

The old argument that a cleaner economy means slower growth doesn’t hold water.

Doug Baker can tell you all about it.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.