In 2015, Salesforce made a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions across its global footprint by 2050. Last week, the software company hit that target 33 years early.

What’s more, Salesforce can now boast a “carbon-neutral cloud.” This takes the pledge a step further, going beyond the emissions directly linked to the company’s operations and energy use, to the emissions generated by manufacturing servers, operating data centers and accessing the Salesforce’s platform through customers’ personal devices.

“Our customers can now rest assured that when they use Salesforce they are carbon-neutral as well,” said Patrick Flynn, senior director of sustainability at Salesforce, in an interview.

The company worked with third parties to conduct a rigorous quantitative analysis on the emissions associated with Salesforce servers, offices and user activities in order to determine the cuts the company needed to make. To get there, Flynn said the company worked for years to boost the overall efficiency of its software platform with shared infrastructure and servers (aka the cloud), which is far less emissions-intensive than on-premise installed software. Salesforce’s "multi-tenant platform" enabled the company to avoid 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year alone, said Flynn.

But that’s really only the beginning. Operating as a net-zero company puts an internal price on the company’s greenhouse gas emissions, which creates an incentive to reduce carbon throughout the business -- from specifying high-efficiency IT equipment to investing in renewable energy projects. Salesforce also purchased carbon credits from sustainable development projects, including a clean-burning cookstoves program in Honduras and a solar water heating project in India.

“These achievements are just some of the next steps in a very long and ongoing journey to drive sustainability deeply through the business and improve the health of the planet,” said Flynn.

Additional, local and innovative

Salesforce is now focused on getting to 100 percent renewable electricity across its global operations -- and that could prove tricky.

Just over a year ago, Salesforce announced two virtual power-purchase agreements: one for 24 megawatts of wind power in Texas, the other for 40 megawatts of wind power in West Virginia -- right in the middle of coal country. “What we love about that project is that…the renewable energy generated is displacing coal-heavy electricity and creating jobs,” said Flynn.

Both projects are now on-line and generating a combined output of 225,000 megawatt-hours per year, which will offset a significant portion of Salesforce’s electricity consumption for years to come. But the 100 percent renewable energy target is still out of reach -- at least in the way that Salesforce wants to reach it.

Salesforce has a specific set of criteria for investing in clean energy projects. For one thing, the projects have to be local, sited on the grids in areas where Salesforce has operations. They also have to be additional projects, or net new beyond business as usual, and, ideally, include an innovative element that will help expand the clean energy marketplace. The virtual PPA model was the novel element of Salesforce's first two projects. 

“Whether we’re working through a utility or an energy provider or some other means, what we really want to see are those qualities -- net new, local and impact -- and depending on what market you’re in, you have very different options available,” said Flynn.

The largest on-site solar array in Texas

If you’re Toyota and you own a giant manufacturing plant in Kentucky, your renewable energy options are pretty limited. Like Salesforce, the Japanese automaker set a goal a few years ago for its global operations to be zero-carbon by 2050. But in Kentucky, where Toyota has a large and growing footprint footprint, 90 percent of the electricity comes from coal.

Some policymakers are trying to make it easier for corporations to purchase renewable energy in the state. NPR reports that the Public Service Commission recently gave utilities permission to offer renewable energy, but it’s still more complicated to produce and projects don’t always pencil out.

Toyota is striving for net-zero tailpipe emissions across its vehicle fleet with the sale of hydrogen fuel cell and electric vehicles. But because of the heavy coal presence in places like Kentucky, getting to 100 percent zero-carbon emissions across Toyota’s operations will be tough. “We’re still thinking about the strategy of how we’ll get to that,” said Kevin Butt, regional environmental sustainability director at Toyota Motor North America, in a recent interview.

In Texas, meanwhile, the car manufacturer has had record-breaking success. Last week, Toyota announced it’s building the largest behind-the-meter solar array in the Lone Star State -- an 8.79-megawatt system that’s being installed by SunPower. More than 20,000 solar panels will cover four large parking garages, equal to the area of 10 football fields, at Toyota’s new headquarters in Plano, Texas.

Apple is also building an enormous on-site solar project, only this one’s at the tech giant’s new $5 billion “spaceship” headquarters in California. With 17 megawatts of rooftop solar capacity, the Apple Park will be home to one of the largest on-site solar installations in the world. The final drone-footage video released before the official campus opening shows the installation is still under construction. Eventually, panels will cover two-thirds of the building’s 750,000-square-foot roof.

The influencer role companies play

Apple, which is 96 percent of the way to achieving its 100 percent renewable energy goal, is also pushing its suppliers to set similar clean energy targets. Last week, three more Apple suppliers committed to using 100 percent renewable energy to manufacture components for the Cupertino-based company. The addition of Taiwan-based Compal Electronics; Shenzhen City, China-based Sunwoda Electronics; and Hong Kong-based Biel Crystal Manufactory brings the total number of Apple suppliers with a pledge to go fully renewable to seven.

Salesforce also wants to influence its suppliers, which in this case are primarily building owners, Flynn explained.

The company chose to pursue a virtual PPA model for its first two clean energy investments because Salesforce doesn’t own the assets it uses. The company mostly leases its offices (quite the new office it will have) and data centers, which means it doesn’t pay the utility bill directly, said Flynn. A virtual PPA allows Salesforce to bring new renewable energy on-line without actually taking possession of the electricity.

The experience prompted Salesforce to help launch The Corporate Co-Location and Cloud Buyers’ Principles. “I think we have a role to play in influencing vendors,” said Flynn.

Salesforce is encouraging other cloud companies and tenants of co-location buildings to add their voice to “a very clear articulation” of what the industry is looking for, he said. In turn, the building owners and office managers companies need to push their utilities to come up with more renewable energy solutions.

“We make sure we share with [our providers] that we’re looking for high-quality, renewable-energy-powered services, and they may be able to pursue that with their utility or energy stakeholders at a different scale,” Flynn said

While 100 percent renewable energy targets are typically met with a variety of local and state-level projects, many corporations have also made sure to express their support for renewable energy at the federal level. That’s particularly true since President Trump announced plans to roll back climate and clean energy regulations.

“One thing this administration has made clear is that they want to hear from business, and so we’re going to do everything we can to make our values known,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, told Bloomberg last week.