In 2008, Virginia resident Ruth McElroy Amundsen took her first stab at using shareholder activism to spur action on climate change—she introduced a resolution that challenged Dominion Resources Inc., Virginia's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to get more of its electricity from renewables.
Since then the 51-year-old NASA engineer and mother of two has helped spark a growing movement to pressure Dominion to respond to global warming concerns. Last month, the informal network of 20 activists achieved its biggest success yet: Shareholders representing nearly a quarter of Dominion's shares voted "yes" on a proposal to require the utility to report to investors on the financial risks that climate change poses to its business.
That wasn't enough to pass the resolution, but it was by far the highest number of "yes" votes ever cast for a climate resolution to Dominion. It was a surprising result, the activists say, because the company has been particularly resistant to climate and renewable energy policies.
Dominion, one of the nation's largest producers and transporters of energy, ranked 187 on the 2012 Fortune 500. The vote represented about $7.6 billion worth of the company's shares.
The vote "sent a real message that you're getting beyond just the die-hard environmentalists," said Seth Heald, a lawyer and a member of the activist network. "You're getting to real investors who are seriously concerned for business reasons about the risk [of climate change]."
The momentum in Virginia is part of a wave of Wall Street activism that has seen shareholder groups and individuals use resolutions to call on utilities and other companies to disclose the risks they could face from extreme weather and carbon regulations. The newest are "carbon bubble" resolutions, which ask fossil fuel companies to reveal how much of their assets would be left "stranded" in the ground if the nation enacts sweeping climate policy.
Amundsen, whose home has a solar-paneled roof, said she was driven to act because of the slow pace of Dominion's renewable energy transformation amid global warming. "I felt like they were not looking long-term enough," she said. "I hate the idea that my kids won't be able to experience the same kind of world as I have."
Richmond-based Dominion generates nearly all of its electricity from a mix of coal, natural gas and nuclear. It is Virginia's biggest carbon polluter, according to federal data on large facilities. It has also supported efforts to weaken the state’s voluntary renewable energy target of 15 percent renewables by 2025.
Two percent of Dominion's electricity supply comes from renewables—mainly from hydropower plus some wind, solar and biomass. The figure nationally is 13 percent.
Dominion spokesman Ryan Frazier did not respond to questions about the activists' criticism and the shareholder resolution that won record support. But he said the utility expects to boost its renewable energy portfolio in Virginia this year as three biomass power plants, which burn plant and tree matter to generate electricity, come online. Dominion is also considering plans to develop onshore and offshore wind farms and is working with businesses to install solar energy systems.
A Shareholder Movement Is Born
Amundsen bought Dominion shares in 2005 to get the conversation started about renewable energy. She said she was "very naïve about shareholder activism" and didn't know she could appeal to investors. So she sent the utility a letter proposing ways in which it could invest in renewable power projects, like pilot solar installations. The letter resulted in a teleconference with Dominion officials, but nothing after that.
Three years later, Amundsen submitted her first resolution urging the company to set a goal of getting 80 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020. She introduced the proposal at the Dominion shareholder meeting, where presenters are allowed to deliver a three-minute pitch to board members—often from the rear of the room. "You're staring at 200 backs of people in blue suits," Amundsen said.
The resolution got four percent of the vote, representing about $820 million in Dominion shares at the time, she said.
At the end of the meeting, shareholders asked Amundsen if she had collaborated with groups like Ceres, a coalition of sustainability focused investors with $11 trillion in assets. She hadn't, but she quickly reached out to the organization. Discovering that activists were working together on similar proposals was "empowering," she said.
"I have a full-time job, I have two kids. This is something I do in the little free time I have. It was really an incredible feeling of support ... I felt like we could do a much more comprehensive job."