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Walking the talk to bring sustainability to the forefront

The College of Business Administration recently launched the new Business Sustainability Institute to promote sustainability in research, teaching and service as well as through interdisciplinary collaborations within the university and with industry.

In addition to education and research, the institute focuses on outreach activities, including the Sustainability in Action Speaker Series, which hosted its second event last week with the Wes Marple Distinguished Lecturer, Michael Hoffman.

“We set up some criteria for the speakers,” said professor Ronald Whitfield, the institute’s director. “We looked for what we call the triple bottom line — planet, profit and people.” As the manager of the world’s largest private equity fund in renewable energy, Riverstone Partners, Hoffman exceeds these metrics, Whitman said.

Hoffman, who co-authored the book “Green: Your Place in the New Energy Revolution” with his wife, Jane, and organized the first presidential debate on renewable energy in 2004, addressed an interdisciplinary audience about the state of renewable energy in today’s complex and turbulent economic and political climate.

Riverstone, Hoffman explained, is designed to return money to investors in the energy space in two “buckets”: conventional energy and renewable energy.

Fuel and power comprise the two very different types of business plans in the renewable energy sector, he said. In the case of fuel, such as ethanol or biodiesel from corn, sugar, soy, or even fat rendering, long-term contracts are not possible because of the competition with food commodities.

Power, on the other hand, which consists of solar, wind and geothermal sources, is structured specifically with long-term contracts and can be competitive with the fluctuating costs of traditional power.

Riverstone invests in both models, because, as Hoffman said, “renewables are here to stay.” The changing political and economic factors, however, can make it a tricky business, he said.

The Sustainability in Action Lecture Series, Whitfield said, brings the institute’s focus on outreach to the forefront while also furthering the discussion on how we can “walk the talk,” as he put it. “We have stopped merely talking about being sustainable – now we need to continue doing more of it.”

Northeastern’s commitment to sustainability — one of the university’s top research themes, along with health and security — is evident campus-wide, from faculty research and student programs to global recognition of the university’s sustainability initiatives.

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