The Importance of Transparency: Why Great River Hydro Implemented an Environmental, Social, and Governance Program

The Importance of Transparency: Why Great River Hydro Implemented an Environmental, Social, and Governance Program

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Great River Hydro is New England’s largest generator of clean and renewable conventional hydropower. Corporate performance in the arenas of environmental protection, community engagement, and ethical business practices define its work.  

In the 21st century, society has come to expect greater accountability … and transparency is the most effective tool to achieve it. Great River Hydro’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Program aims to document and make public not just its accomplishments in these important areas, but also its goals to continually improve corporate citizenship.  

The ESG Program was created voluntarily by Great River Hydro as a means of conveying these details to communities and investors. Through the annual production of an ESG report, Great River Hydro lays out the roadmap of its accomplishments while simultaneously providing insight into the relationships, activities, and milestones shaping its progress.  

INTRODUCING GREAT RIVER HYDRO 

Great River Hydro operates 13 generating stations and 3 storage-only reservoirs located on the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The company generates enough carbon-free electricity to power over 213,000 homes. These facilities have been providing electric power to the region for over 100 years (Great River Hydro purchased the assets from TransCanada in 2017, and they were originally owned by New England Power).  

Operating at the nexus of ecosystems, communities, and people, Great River Hydro understands its unique position to transcend the traditional role of a utility provider of renewable energy in New England.  

WHAT IS AN ESG PROGRAM? 

In 2021, Great River Hydro began the creation of an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Program, and the initial document was published in March of 2022. 

The program grew out of Great River Hydro’s code of business ethics, which established the ethical conduct expected of the company’s employees, consultants, partners, and suppliers, as well as the societal shift around climate change. 

Scott Hall, President and CEO of Great River Hydro, provided insight into the dialogue that brought about the inspiration for the ESG program: “Ten years ago, the climate change conversation was about coming to terms with reality. In the past few years, the conversation has shifted from ‘What are we going to do?’ to ‘What do we do now?’ There is more interest now in renewables, and hydro assets have become even more important.”  

A core part of the company’s environmental stewardship responsibilities is derived from Great River Hydro’s ownership and management of nearly 30,000 acres of land, much of which is maintained in its natural state under conservation easements. Great River Hydro knew that it was critical to develop a team to evaluate not only the company’s land conservation practices but also identify opportunities to analyze and refine every layer of its business model.  

“Prior to the ESG Program, we never captured everything in one place. Now that we’ve captured all of our activities in one program, we can identify ways to measure, improve, and report on those things and their progress,” says Kari Sparks, Great River Hydro Environmental/Land Specialist, who led the internal effort to develop the ESG Program. “We crafted the ESG Program with input and direction from a multi-disciplinary team representing employees from across the company. That has increased employee understanding, as well as employee engagement, with the many things the company and our employees do to contribute to the region.” 

The guiding principles of an ESG program are: 

  1. Commitment to protecting and stewarding the environment, being a valued corporate citizen of the community, and acting as an ethical and fair employer and business partner 
  2. Detailing work and successes in the aforementioned categories 
  3. Identify areas for improvement 

WHY IT MATTERS 

The development of the ESG program was a team effort that details a company striving to connect all facets of its work to the environmental and ethical motivations binding it together.  

Due to the expansive nature of both Great River Hydro’s assets and regional coverage, the challenge is apparent: How do you capture everything?  

“The intent is to be transparent,” said Scott Hall, “The ESG Program is way to communicate with people.”  

The team at Great River Hydro views the ESG Program and accompanying report to be more of a building block than a ‘one-and-done’ effort. Great River Hydro released the initial ESG Program in March of 2022 and plans on publishing an ESG report each year. In doing so, transparency becomes a tool of accountability, as it drives Great River to demonstrate to community and business partners the resonance of their work.  

While Great River Hydro didn’t create the ESG Program as a means of affecting the industry, it does offer a roadmap to other companies looking to demonstrate the impact of their presence in ways that go beyond the easily quantifiable.  

The ESG Program report tells the story of Great River Hydro, and each subsequent year will offer another chapter in the company’s journey to achieve the environmental, business, and community standards defining its role as New England’s largest provider of conventional hydropower. 

COMMITMENT TO PROTECTING AND STEWARDING THE ENVIRONMENT 

The team at Great River Hydro views the transformation of New England’s electric grid to achieve carbon neutrality as one of the foremost challenges of the modern era. With 11 hydropower projects certified as “low impact” by the Low Impact Hydro Institute, Great River Hydro manages and operates its assets while protecting vital habitats for a range of species.  

Below are a few notable examples of Great River Hydro’s wildlife management activities: 

  • Protecting environments, which encourage loon nesting and fish spawning 
  • Providing passage around dams for migratory fish 
  • Preventing and educating the public about invasive species 
  • Enhancing biodiversity through timberland and grassland management 
  • Monitoring and protecting rare plants and endangered species 

The relationships Great River Hydro maintains with conservation groups are of critical importance. Case in point: the long-standing partnership with Vermont Center for Ecostudies and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, which work toward protecting the Common Loon. For example, Great River Hydro provides annual financial support to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies for its LoonWatch program. The LoonWatch program is a vital component of loon conservation in Vermont, utilizing citizen volunteers and scientists to aid in conservation efforts.  

Beyond species conservation, Great River Hydro also strives to reduce waste in its daily operations in order to ease burdens on landfills while minimizing overall environmental impacts. To accomplish this waste reduction, Great River Hydro selects products that can be reused or recycled, implements reductions and alternatives to current practices, and educates employees in waste minimization. The use of biodegradable oils in fishways-related equipment is a good example of this effort  

“It’s a continuous effort to think about the products we use, as well as the supply chain side of it,” says Kari Sparks, Great River Hydro Environmental/Land Specialist.  

VALUED CORPORATE CITIZEN OF THE COMMUNITY 

When one reads through the ESG Program materials and accompanying report, the importance of maintaining a focus on safety is evident. During NHA’s conversation with Scott Hall, he stressed how critical safety is in all facets of Great River Hydro’s work: “Safety is the most important component in what we do in all of our maintenance activities. We do that in a number of ways: continuous trainings, job safety planning, and emphasis on our internal Joint Health, Safety, and Environmental Committee which is comprised of employees from across the Great River platform. As a result, we have an admirable OSHA record, with little to no lost-time incidents.” 

While Great River Hydro has not had to respond to any emergency scenarios, they have built out extensive systems to support the rapid exchange of information to communities in the event an emergency may occur.  

Hall says the pillars of the company’s Health and Safety program emphasizes “keeping the public and our employees safe and informed through open dialogue about projects, plans, and emergency preparedness for the region.” One form this takes is via an electronic messaging service, the Everbridge System, which is utilized by Great River Hydro to deliver important information to community partners in seconds, as opposed to making a series of individual calls. 

“We have an emergency action plan used in high water events and that plan is distributed to local communities. If we initiate a plan, for instance, if there’s a big rain event, then we broadcast it immediately. Those communications go out to everyone at the same time. It’s a much a faster process and communication method,” Hall says. “Currently, we’ve only used it for preparedness, but it’s ready to go.” 

“Another thing we did is update our emergency mapping, converting it into a web-based GIS mapping system, so our partners can have real-time access to information.” 

An additional example of how Great River Hydro interacts with the community is via the Bellows Falls Fish Ladder and Visitor Center on the Connecticut River in Vermont. The center aims to engage the public while highlighting topics related to the unique ecology and landscape of New England. With funding from Great River Hydro, the Nature Museum at Grafton – a local nonprofit organization that provides environmental education to the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River – operates out of the center and brings free environmental education programming to students, and the public, through the summer months.  

ACTING AS AN ETHICAL EMPLOYER AND BUSINESS PARTNER 

By holding themselves to high ethical standards as an employer and business, Great River Hydro strives to ensure the company’s values permeate every level of operation. Take, for instance, the Health, Wellness, and Safety programs, which offer healthy living benefits designed to encourage employee well-being. By analyzing industry best practices to improve employee participation, the benefits are continuously shaped by frequent and open communication with internal stakeholders.  

To complement these programs, Great River Hydro employees are encouraged to take advantage of the employee engagement grant program, which provides employees with direct funding to support locally based organizations of their own choosing, such as Toys for Tots of the Upper Valley areas of New Hampshire and Vermont. By offering a venue for charitable support, the employees can use work-provided funds to gift toys to children during the holiday season.  

Great River Hydro is an important employer in the region, attracting a skilled and diverse workforce from the communities where its facilities are located. The company’s employees bring decades of technical and operational experience in the industry to their work every day. The ESG Program creates the infrastructure for employees to bring together their enthusiasm for supporting their local communities with their technical and operational skills. 

In short, Great River Hydro understands the importance of both connecting and nourishing the communities their employees call home.  

When speaking about how the ESG program relates to Great River Hydro’s business dealings, Scott Hall had this to say: “There has been an evolution around the conversation related to climate change and governance issues, and we appreciate that other people also find this important. The ESG Program is a way for us to document and communicate what we’re doing. A lot of our business relationships find this to be more and more important as well. We try to do the right things for the right reasons, and we are doing our part to emphasize those efforts internally and externally; it is important.”