It’s becoming more clear every day that cleaner energy and environmental sustainability depends on private industry.

The expiration of many renewable energy incentives, zero prospects for a U.S. carbon tax or a cap and trade program, restraints on public spending and the low price and growing supplies of natural gas are putting commitments to renewable energy and sustainability under the corporate microscope.

So measuring companies with a green ‘yardstick’ spotlights those who walk the talk throughout the company and those who are ahead of the pack.

Let’s take Sprint. From commercial and home energy management, to displacing fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy to collaborating with clean tech innovators and recycling used cell phones, Sprint is one of a handful of companies we thrive on showcasing here at The Energy Fix.

Exhibit A – Alternative Energy: Let’s start with Sprint’s own carbon footprint. Its wireless network operations account for about 80 percent of its total corporate energy use. Sprint is on track to install hydrogen fuel cells for backup power at more than 500 of its rapidly expanding network of wireless antenna stations throughout the U.S. by year-end 2012.

The hydrogen fuel cells provide 72 hours on on-site power backup. That is a significant step up from what has been the traditional backup time-frame of only 15 hours.  They replace mostly diesel-fuel power generators and eliminate noise and harmful emissions. Other byproducts of this push for fuel cells are lower operating costs and increased network dependability. Sprint already powers several of its antennas during daytime hours with solar systems.

Sprint has secured 5% of its total energy use from renewable energy sources. That places it in 26th place on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest quarterly update to the “Green Power Partner” rankings for Fortune 500 companies as of April 5, 2012.

Sprint is doing more than recycling cell phones. CREDIT: HotHardware.com

Exhibit B – Energy Management: Sprint is working with SmartLabs INSTEON to enable home owners and businesses to access and control their energy consumption from a simple Web portal or Sprint smartphone. Property owners can schedule electrical devices to turn on or off, especially when local power demand exceeds the capacity of the regional grid and risks of a brownout or outage escalate.

In fact, Sprint is piloting an INSTEON integrated commercial energy management system at one of its retail stores. The system enables programed cooling, heating and ventilation based on current and forecast weather. According to Brian Huey, a Sprint smart grid / utility / energy business development manager, the typical store is saving about 28% on year-to-year electricity consumption, along with the associated reductions in emissions.  In states with time-of-use pricing, the cost savings can boost the bottom line.

Exhibit C – Smart Grid Collaboration: One of Sprint’s core businesses is applying it wireless network talents and technologies to facilitate the evolution of smart grid applications. The company is partnering with a variety of name-brand companies such as Itron, Landis & Gyr and Metrum to overlay communications systems linking power generators, distribution utilities and consumers through smart meters.

Huey told The Energy Fix this is a logical outgrowth of the company’s symbiotic relationship with utilities drawing on its original push-to-talk technology. “Sprint in not a Johnny-come-lately. We’ve been in this industry for many, many years with iDEN enabled smart meters and RTUs (Remote Terminal Units),” Huey said.

Sprint has a collaboration center in the San Francisco Bay area where smart grid application developers can work side-by-side with Sprint engineers and support staff. There they model and test how machine-to-machine (“M2M”) applications can help residences and businesses reduce their energy consumption.

Exhibit D – Electric Vehicles: In yet another partnership, Sprint is working with Ecotality to deploy about 15,000 electric vehicle charging stations in 16 cities, enabling billing services. Plus customers can receive notification of a charge interruption or completion.

Exhibit E – Supply Chain Sustainability: Sprint was the first U.S. wireless carrier to establish environmental specifications for future devices and accessories. It has a scorecard to encourage vendor participation and collaborated with Underwriters Laboratory (UL) Environment and device manufacturers to develop a sustainability certification process for mobile phones. The draft standard was released late last year and Sprint has since launched 3 devices with the highest level of certification offered with the standard. Sprint now requires all new mobile phones to go through the certification process.

These and other corporate sustainability / social responsibility initiatives earned Sprint the #3 ranking on Newsweek magazine’s 2011 ranking  of “America’s Greenest Companies.” That is up from #6 in 2010 and #15 in 2009. Could #1 be far behind?