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Bank of America surpasses halfway mark in $20B pledge to finance sustainability projects

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In 2010 alone, the financial services giant arranged more than $4 billion in funding, including school energy-efficiency projects and community-centric renewable energy investments.

Massive financial services company Bank of America is publishing its latest corporate social responsibility report this week, providing insight both on progress toward its own sustainability goals and on its aspiration to become a major financing mechanism for landmark environmental sustainability projects.

More on Bank of America's internal progress in a moment. First a look at its external activities to claim a piece of the financing opportunity for sustainability projects, activities that continue despite its high-profile exposure in the U.S. mortgage-backed securities crisis. Back in 2007, the company said it would put up $20 billion in financing over a 10-year period to support energy efficiency projects, renewable energy production and other low-carbon energy initiatives.

By the end of 2010, Bank of America had committed more than $11.6 billion toward solar and environmental projects. In late June, for example, the company emerged as a lead backer of what is described as the biggest distributed rooftop project in U.S. history. That project involves Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Prologis (a real estate company) and NRG Energy (a solar energy developer). The consortium has snagged a $1.4 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to support distributed solar installations across 28 states. That backing will result in a project size of about $2.6 billion, resulting in approximately 733 megawatts of capacity over time.

Describing the project, NRG Solar President Tom Doyle said:

"NRG believes rooftop solar is a smart choice for industrial, commercial and residential property owners in markets around the country, and this program provides the commercial scale that will bring the benefits of solar power to customers around the country. This program will nearly double the amount of grid-connected solar online in the United States today and make another positive contribution to cleaner air and a healthy environment."

During 2010, Bank of America put a total of $4 billion toward its environmental funding initiatives. It provided $476 million in financing of energy-efficiency projects at K-12 schools, colleges and universities. For example, it provided $56 million to help North Carolina State University finance its energy-conservation projects, which are expected to result in $6.5 million in annual savings at the university. It has also put up $1.9 billion to back "green" commercial real estate debt and equity transactions.

Bank of America gives its customers an opportunity to feel like they are making a difference, through programs such as the Brighter Planet Affinity Banking suite. Money from that product line, used by 188,000 retail customers, has helped fund 20 community renewable energy projects. The impact of those projects is the power-savings and emissions-reduction impact of turning of the lights in every U.S. home for three days, according to the bank's corporate social responsibility report.

Of course, Bank of America still lends to and has business dealing with companies that some of us might consider less than environmentally friendly. While the bank stops short of saying it won't deal with such businesses, it does note the following:

"The bank's credit policies incorporate an environmental due diligence process, in addition to comprehensive evaluation conducted by consultants and other outside experts on certain transactions. When working with clients that operate in emissions-intensive sectors, such as electric power utilities, we apply our risk and underwriting processes and standards to factor in the future potential costs attributed to their [greenhouse gas] emissions."

What does Bank of America's own sustainability house look like? The report indicates that the company achieved an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (compared with a 2004 starting point; that outstrips its goal for a 9 percent decrease. Bank of American has set a number of new goals for itself, which are outlined in a post I wrote in May. Among those goals: a 15 percent additional reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 2011 and 2015. The bank also is striving to certify up to 20 percent of its corporate workplace real estate under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program by 2015.

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Heather Clancy

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Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure