Sustainable Infrastructure: So Much More Than Renewable Energy
By Denise Nelson, Climate Solutions Lead, Black & Veatch and JC Alonzo, Environmental Sustainability Specialist, Black & Veatch
Black & Veatch and our clients – as developers, asset owners, city planners, engineers and constructors – sit at the intersection of the built, natural and social environments.
Together, we have the opportunity to envisage, plan, design and construct sustainable infrastructure that meets economic, environmental and community needs. By coaching sustainability mindsets and capabilities, and integrating sustainable actions and behaviors, the infrastructure we deliver today can have a more meaningful and measured impact in our lives and in the well-being and preservation of our communities.
In its broadest sense, this is what we mean by delivering sustainable infrastructure. It requires a shift in thinking and behaviors of all parties involved.
The need for sustainable infrastructure is only rising. Global climate change is becoming increasingly evident in local communities: extreme heat or cold igniting forest fires or bursting pipes to virulent storms flooding neighborhoods or felling power lines. Once conceptual or far away, these disturbances increasingly impact our ways of life in profound and tangible ways; one in three Americans experienced a weather disaster in the summer of 2021 alone, according to The Washington Post. Such regular incidents urgently demand lower or zero-emissions infrastructure that mitigates climate change; they also clearly call for better and more resilient infrastructure that adapts to these consequences, providing nature-based solutions and other engineered barriers that protect people and properties as well as habitats and ecosystems.
Yet, sustainable infrastructure is far more than renewable energy, improved drainage systems or carbon sinks. With the right processes, tools and human-centered thinking, we can integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) benefits into how we deliver every type of infrastructure project. Such a worthy ambition can be achieved through the Institute of Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision framework, a recognized blueprint for sustainable infrastructure.
Sustainable-by-Design: Envision Framework
As a charter member, Black & Veatch made an early commitment to support the development and implementation of Envision and has years of award-winning experience implementing the framework across many types of renewable energy and water systems projects.
Envision offers a fully independent objective rating system that comprehensively rates the sustainability and resiliency of individual projects. Some 64 criteria range across land and watercourse impacts, emissions, recyclable content, waste, wildlife and ecosystem impact, engagement of landowners, communities and stakeholders of interests and much more.
Black & Veatch uses the framework to aid decisions during planning, design and construction and help clients continue to realize ESG benefits subsequently through the infrastructure’s operations, maintenance and eventually during its end-of-life. What’s important to understand is that the Envision criteria and performance objectives are adaptable to every kind of project as well as an owners’ expectations and sustainability program focus areas. Early in a project conception, we work with our clients to identify sustainable, resilient and equitable targets; these can range from mitigating the impacts of climate change, addressing public health gaps, cultivating social and environmental justice through the project’s works or creating jobs and spurring local economic prosperity. When managed throughout the process, accompanied by the coached behaviors and mindsets, considerable sustainable progress can be achieved through these re-geared processes.
Platinum Verified Wind project
Many developers today are not satisfied with merely delivering an improved environmental outcome but are conscious of the additional social capital and shareholder value derived from how a project development is delivered as a whole.
Alliant Energy, a public utility providing power in Iowa and Wisconsin, became the first wind farm developer to receive Platinum EnvisionTM verification for its Upland Prairie and English Hills projects. Black & Veatch assembled an integrated team of accredited Envision Sustainability Professionals (ENV SPs) alongside environmental permitting, water and renewable energy engineering experts to deliver five utility-scale wind farms totaling 470 megawatts across Iowa. The projects were planned and designed to account for and incorporate data across multiple sustainability criteria identified with the client that fit the Envision framework and Alliant Energy specific business objectives. The approach was successful in reflecting Alliant Energy values through the project’s progress and extends into its ongoing operation.
Integration of expertise
Black & Veatch typically manages the Envision process for our clients, representing the interests of all stakeholders engaged in the project and ensuring all legitimate voices are heard and their design concerns are met.
However, the key to the success of Envision projects and attaining higher Envision rankings or results is alignment and understanding of the Envision process across the ‘biggest team’ possible so efforts are maximized. It remains important to get this right from the start through training and coaching so that the Envision framework is implemented efficiently and effectively across all stages of a project’s development and throughout the infrastructure operations. Our integrated team of environmental and engineering experts also includes ENV SP trainers on staff that work to support the certification of clients’ and other partners’ teams.
Training others increases our own sustainable contribution to the engineering ecosystem. Recognizing that even more can be done, as part of Black & Veatch’s sustainability commitments we are expanding the use of sustainability principles into our project planning and design, standardizing the delivery of sustainability in infrastructure projects.