How you buy your power matters, according to this leader in energy and advocate for a sustainable future.
Bruno Sarda, the vice president of sustainability at NRG Energy, says there is good reason that the renewable energy revolution makes some people a little nervous. “Change is hard,” he says. “Especially very big disruptive change. But it’s also very exciting.”
Sarda likens sustainability to the internet of the ’90s. Everyone knew it was the way of the future, but figuring out what to do about it in the present was often nerve-racking.
The good news is the sustainable energy future that visionaries were dreaming about just 10 years ago has largely arrived. Some of the worst growth pains are behind us, says Sarda. No longer just a shimmering idea about how to power the planet without polluting it, wind, solar, and other renewable technologies are becoming the new backbone of the nation’s electric grid. In 2015, 64% of the new electricity generating capacity in the U.S. came from renewable energy sources, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Virtually no new coal-powered production has come online in recent years, giving some hope that the goals of the Paris Agreement can still be met.
NRG, the largest independent power provider in the country, is at the forefront of that trend. NRG is third in the country in terms of renewable energy generation and reduced its carbon emissions by 40% from 2005 to 2014. They aim to reduce emissions another 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050 over the 2014 benchmark.
Sarda joined the company in 2016 to oversee the journey toward those ambitious goals after a stint as the head of sustainability at Dell. He also helped to develop the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership at Arizona State University, where he continues to teach part-time. He recently sat down with gb&d to discuss this exciting time in the energy sector, as well as his personal philosophy on bringing up the next generation of sustainability leaders.
"Sustainability is this big disruptive societal force that is making us rethink how we do everything as organizations, as individuals, as a society."
gb&d: What first turned you on to the environment and the idea of sustainability?
Sarda: I got interested in sustainability pretty early. I grew up in France and there wasn’t a lot on TV back then, but one of the things I loved to watch was Jacques Cousteau. I was really inspired by his approach to ocean conservation. It definitely made me aware that our actions as people matter—and that if we’re not careful we can drive both species and ecosystems to the brink of extinction.
gb&d: What about his approach sticks with you today?
Sarda: What has stuck with me all along is, unlike many others in the field, he wasn’t necessarily telling people, “You’re bad for doing these things,” but rather he invested himself as an inventor, as an explorer, and as a storyteller to really make us fall in love with the underwater world and its creatures. People protect what they love, right? So rather than try to shame us or scare us, it’s like, “Look, this is awesome, why not protect it?” It’s become part of my own philosophy. I approach sustainability very much from an opportunity, rather than a fear-based, approach. It’s like, let’s do all these things because what will happen as a result is great—as opposed to doing it to avoid outcomes we fear.
gb&d: It’s a wonder you didn’t end up a marine biologist!
Sarda: My career has not had anything to do with going on cool trips across the oceans. I studied business, and then I went into the IT space. I spent about 15 years of my career from the mid-90s to about 2010 riding the crest of the wave, that bleeding edge of internet-based disruption. When I went to work for Charles Schwab in the mid-90s we were trying to figure out what the internet was and what it was going to mean to both the business itself and to the individual investing space.
gb&d: How did you make the leap to sustainability?
Sarda: Well, working in IT in the early years taught me a couple of things. One, that change is hard. Especially very big disruptive change. The internet was massively disruptive to both organizations and their customer base. It’s not like anybody sat around saying, “Oh this internet thing, I don’t want it.” It was just hard. But it was also exciting. It engineered and engendered so much creativity and innovation. Today it’s hard for us to imagine what our daily lives would be if we didn’t have all these internet-powered devices supporting us.
For me, sustainability is a lot like that. Sustainability is this big disruptive societal force that is making us rethink how we do everything as organizations, as individuals, as a society. Again, it’s a good change, but it’s a hard change. Ultimately what I realized is helping organizations and people move through the disruptive change was something I had become good at, and so that’s how I got here.
gb&d: What is your role at NRG today?
Sarda: We have a few core businesses. One is wholesale power generation. We own a bunch of power plants where we produce electricity and sell it to the grid. So a big part of my job has to do with looking at how that power is produced and specifically the water- and carbon-intensity of the process. We also work directly with large power users on their own power solutions, whether it is deploying on-site renewables, off-site renewables, as well as energy management solutions. Collectively my job is about understanding how sustainability factors into the overall strategy of the company. I work with every part of the business to shape and form and influence the way we do business so that it helps us meet or exceed our sustainability goals.
gb&d: What are some examples of your current sustainability initiatives?
Sarda: The biggest one is continuing to decarbonize our power generation. We just completed another four conversions of coal plants to be gas-powered, reducing the collective carbon intensity of those plants by a very significant amount. But there are all kinds of other things. We are starting to work a lot more with our supply chain because it is not just about our own carbon footprint, it’s about who we buy stuff from, as well as our office space. So it’s a lot of people-centric and place-centric sustainability initiatives, whether it’s waste reduction or composting or the energy efficiency of our own offices.
We are also working quite a bit with the customer side of things. Because ultimately the collective carbon footprint of our customers is much larger than our own. We make sure that we help them have a better understanding of their energy solutions and their energy management strategy, both to reduce the environmental footprint of their organization and, in most cases, to help them save a good amount of money.
gb&d: How active is NRG with wind and solar?
Sarda: We have a very large portfolio. We’re one of the top developers and upgraders of large-scale solar. We are one of the top in wind. A lot of our new development is in the renewable space. We’re building a lot of community solar now as well—it’s not utility scale, but community scale.
gb&d: How do you define the concept of the smart grid?
Sarda: It’s one of those things like Big Data—sometimes people use that term loosely. But the idea of the smart grid is to put systems intelligence into the way power is produced, distributed, and consumed. A good example is what we are doing with demand response. This means, if we have the right technology in place, we can help our large power customers shift the time of day that they use a lot of power to a time when power is least expensive. This way they avoid demand charges, which can be very costly. You can’t really do that without having good information systems in place.
gb&d: What’s the sustainability component of that picture?
Sarda: Ultimately we see these information-driven systems playing a big role in integrating more and more renewables and battery storage into the grid. To be able to do that you have to have a very detailed understanding of load and generation. With a smart grid you know how much your solar panels are producing versus how much you have stored in batteries. You know where the usage is, where you can shift usage to, which sources are available to draw on at any time. And then when you can start integrating things like large numbers of electric vehicles into the grid as transportation continues to electrify.
gb&d: How does all that connect to the built environment?
Sarda: You can think of the old version of the grid as like an incandescent bulb in a light fixture with a switch that turns it on or off—it’s pretty much as analog as you can get. Whereas now we have all of these lighting systems in smart offices that know whether you’re at your desk or not or what time of day it is and how much the sun is shining in from outside, and they can automatically adjust the amount of electric lighting based on the amount of ambient lighting available. So that’s not nearly as analog as the light switch that just turns the light on or off.
“Let’s do all these things because what will happen as a result is great—as opposed to doing it to avoid outcomes we fear.”
gb&d: What is NRG’s long-term sustainability vision?
Sarda: Our vision is to create a sustainable energy future. We have been on a journey now for several years to really be the energy company that figures this out. We have a large conventional generation portfolio, so we represent where the energy industry comes from. And we have a large presence in building renewables, energy storage, and demand management systems, so we also have a big stake in where energy systems are going.
gb&d: Sounds like you’re riding that bleeding edge of disruption and innovation that you were talking about.
Sarda: Having to manage this transition as a company is a good proxy for what society is having to do. We see it as a need, but also as a clear opportunity. We believe that’s the way to be a successful energy company in the future—to figure out how to do this safely, reliably, affordably, and in a way that meets the needs of all stakeholders.
gb&d: What’s your strategy look like for getting there?
Sarda: We have very aggressive science-based targets for climate goals and carbon reduction. We were actually one of the first companies in any sector, and certainly the first in our sector, to set science-based targets. We’ve been disclosing our environmental impact for years now. We recognize that climate change is real and needs to be addressed, and we believe business has a role to play. We also see it as meeting the needs of our customers who clearly want a more efficient, cleaner energy future.
gb&d: What are your thoughts on the impact of the Trump administration on clean energy?
Sarda: Obviously there are lots of questions that have not been answered yet, and I certainly can’t speculate as to what the future will look like. What we do believe, however, is the transition to renewables is now so far underway that I don’t think the federal government will have nearly as big a lever as it used to have in shaping the future. The economics of renewables now are more and more favorable, and the demand is very strong.
gb&d: What sparked you to get involved with sustainability education at ASU?
Sarda: I originally went to ASU as an undergrad. ASU has the number one degree-granting sustainability school in the country. And it’s not just a leading institution for sustainability education, but for research and outreach and integration across the whole institution. They have sustainability embedded all across the organization.
gb&d: What’s the thinking behind the Executive Master of Sustainability Leadership program you’ve helped to spearhead?
Sarda: It was really interesting for me to get re-involved with ASU not as a student but as a professional in sustainability looking at how sustainability was being taught and understanding how we are externalizing the science that is fueling sustainability education. The faculty was really interested in internalizing my applied expertise as somebody who works in sustainability. Because, after all, they are training and educating people who are hoping to work in sustainability.
gb&d: What qualities of leadership do you seek to embed in your students?
Sarda: I developed a workshop that became a course on how to prepare for career success in sustainability, based on the premise that knowing what sustainability is is important, but that it’s a small part of what success looks like. Success looks like helping people and organizations navigate through disruptive, ambiguous, difficult, uncomfortable changes. How do you make the case for that? How do you inspire? Going back to the Cousteau model, how do you not make people do things, but make them want to do things?
gb&d: What’s the most important piece of advice you have for the sustainability movement?
Sarda: We’re all in this together—people designing structures, managing structures, financing structures, powering structures. At NRG, we only exist because organizations large and small and people everywhere use the power we generate. Our message to all of our customers, and future customers, is: How you buy your power matters. If you want a sustainable energy future, ask for it, and advocate for it.