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Can an energy company break free from the world of traditional power generation plants and become part of the solution to climate change? Global energy giant ENGIE has taken on that challenge by transitioning into a zero-carbon organization. In fact, it now helps other businesses make their own transitions.
Under the leadership of CEO Isabelle Kocher, ENGIE has realized its vision of becoming a pioneer in the world’s move to zero carbon. To do this, the company radically changed its business model to provide new energy solutions as a service, enabling businesses and local authorities to reduce their carbon footprint. It is now a leading player in onshore wind and solar energies, and has halved its direct carbon emissions across 100 business units.
At the heart of its shift are digital technologies that help the company meet its customers’ demand for sustainable and cost-effective solutions. Salesforce provides ENGIE with the cloud-based software platform that enables these solutions — and we fully support ENGIE’s cause. Through our own innovative products, such as the new Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, we empower businesses to take actions that have meaningful impacts on the environment.
We sat down with Kocher and Gwénaëlle Avice-Huet, ENGIE’s Executive Vice President, head of the Global Renewable Business Line, and CEO of North America, to learn more about their trailblazing efforts to create change in the energy sector.
Q. Why did ENGIE decide to help tackle climate change through innovation energy solutions?
Kocher: We were strictly an energy provider, an energy producer, and it was a source of pride, in fact. We helped a lot of countries to install energy infrastructure, bringing access to energy to a lot of people. Progressively, we realized that we had to take into account something more, and that energy production was the top carbon dioxide producer in the world.
That led us to a kind of existential question. We decided to be part of the solution, and not the problem. So many people oppose the common good and good business. Some of them even told us, “But you’re not an NGO [non-government organization].” Yes, we are not an NGO, for sure. But my conviction is that the more we integrate with the challenges of society and understand the key expectations of younger generations, the more we protect our company, the more we are attractive.
Q. Why the energy sector? Why is it so important for your industry to drive this change?
Avice-Huet: The energy sector is at the core of the zero-carbon mission and transition because it encompasses so many different areas. It’s about consumption, it’s about production. But at the same time it’s also about mobility, for example, because mobility — green mobility to be exact — is really key to decarbonization. So, for me, energy is at the center of the discussion that we can have with a client to decarbonize its footprint. That’s why it’s so important to be involved in the energy sector. Because then you can move the needle.
Q. But it can’t be easy. What was your transition journey like?
Kocher: It was, of course, a challenge, and with a lot of threats and risks. But I believe it was also an opportunity to change things, because climate change is not the only challenge we have. I used to work for a water company, and I remember coming across a statistic that every 18 seconds a child died from lack of access to clean water. But nobody cared. Companies continued to do business as usual. So, in my view, climate change is a fantastic opportunity to reconsider things, to reinvent capitalism, and to channel the power of business to deal with all the limits we face today.
Years ago, we had three, four years of a systematic reduction in our net income, which was, in my view, a sign of the shift that was coming. We had some internal debate at that moment. People were saying, “Okay, it is just a bad moment, but we’ll see. Let’s just continue with our model.” Others said the situation was deeper than that, and that was when I decided to go with my vision to lead the energy transition.
Avice-Huet: Isabelle made a very brave decision, saying, “I don’t want to be part of the ancient world that we have. I want to invest in new technologies and renewables, and in solutions that support all our clients, all citizens in their zero-carbon transition journeys.” Our transition started from the ground. Everybody was asking for change. And I think that’s a tremendous place to be because we have a perfect combination of solutions for a zero-carbon transition.
Q. How did you overcome those challenges?
Kocher: We had several challenges at the same time. Internally, we had to convince our people, to get an alignment — not 100%, but let’s say 80%. We also had to convince the market. And it was not easy, because our plan was to stop a big part of our business, or to dispose of EUR15 billion worth of assets that were bringing in cash, and to reinvest that in new zero-carbon solutions as a service.
And then I had to explain to the market that we would go through a period when we would shrink our company. To convince the market that the best thing to do was to shrink the company when you are listed was not easy. But I asked for three years. I told our shareholders, “Give me three years, and you’ll see we’ll grow more rapidly and will be more profitable.”
Q. You’ve said that your goal is to lead the energy transition towards a zero-carbon future. What are your strategies for achieving this?
Kocher: Our strategy is to have a very high, C-suite level discussion with our clients, and the Fortune Global 500 is at the core of our strategy. We have high-level relationships with these guys, helping them to, first, try to understand their own strategies. We look at their main objectives, what is really strategic to them, and help them to design their own zero-carbon roadmaps. So, here, we need a tool that is able to gather maximum data to profile a company, to be able to adjust our approach in a way that fits the objectives of the client. And then we start our work with them and build a zero-carbon roadmap globally.
I believe the future of energy is in three Ds — achieving decarbonized power generation for sure, but also decentralized production. You need to have a lot of energy production facilities integrated with buildings, with industrial plants, and to probably have rooftop solar panels connected to batteries onsite. Then you need digital tools. You need sensors to connect rooftop solar panels to a battery, to all the facilities consuming energy at a site. Then you need to pool data together. And you need algorithms and software.
Q. Can you tell us more about these digital tools and how they’ve helped ENGIE’s transformation?
Kocher: I believe that speed is of the essence, and so we’ve really moved more rapidly than the others. My objective is that we stay ahead of the pack. So, to get the best tools is critical to able to integrate more information. And we see more and more young people joining our businesses. You know, since we started our move four years ago, we’ve got 80% more résumés, because the young generation has a lot of appetite for the zero-carbon movement. We need to give these guys efficient, modern tools — and the Salesforce tools we work with are critical to them.
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