NRG Energy’s VP of Sustainability Jeanne-Mey Sun Says Customer Demand is Driving Decarbonization

A Highly Customer-centric Corporate’s Road to Net-zero Emissions

This interview is part of Greentown Labs’ Climatetech Leadership Series, which profiles top executives from our most committed and climate action-oriented partners.

Greentown Labs is proud to partner with corporations that have made impactful, science-based climate commitments and are eager to support the climatetech innovations necessary to make those commitments happen. NRG Energy, a Founding Partner of Greentown Houston—which opened on Earth Day—is an excellent example of a company that’s weaving pathways to decarbonization deep into its ethos and business model.

NRG Energy is a Fortune 500 company that brings the power of energy to millions of customers across the U.S. and Canada. It provides 100 percent renewable power to the City of Houston, and in 2015 it was the first power company in North America to receive certification from the Science-based Targets Initiative (SBTi) that its climate goals aligned with the two-degrees Celsius global warming limit. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lowered the limit to 1.5 Celsius, NRG Energy accelerated its climate commitments, and has since become the first North American power company to have its climate goals validated as 1.5 degree Celsius by SBTi, and one of only 12 power companies globally.

NRG Energy is continuing to deepen its engagement with the climatetech ecosystem through the Carbon to Value (C2V) Initiative—a unique partnership among Urban Future Lab, Greentown Labs, and the Fraunhofer USA TechBridge Program that’s driving the creation of a thriving innovation ecosystem for the commercialization of carbontech. NRG Energy’s Vice President of Sustainability Jeanne-Mey Sun is serving on the C2V Initiative’s Carbontech Leadership Council, which will work closely with the 10 carbontech startups that make up the program’s first cohort.

This spring, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeanne-Mey about how customers are driving the push for decarbonization, the possibilities presented by carbontech and how we can make them a reality, and more. 

Here are the biggest takeaways from our discussion, alongside quotes that stuck with me.

Decarbonization reflects an evolution in customer demand—and one that’s accelerating quickly.

“We really aspire to be a consumer products company. There’s been so many net-zero commitments made by so many companies that now the corporate sector is very, very interested in renewable power. Many of our end users—both residential and companies—have sustainability goals, and this trend is only going to increase. As that happens, we want to help our customers meet their goals by providing sustainable products and services. There’s an alignment among sustainability, innovation, and our overall company strategy. We’re seeing customers taking more control of their energy choices, deciding what kind of energy to buy, how they want to consume it, and where that energy comes from.”

Public-private partnerships, such as the one between NRG Energy and the City of Houston, can lead to meaningful climate action.

“Last year on Earth Day, the City of Houston released its Climate Action Plan, which includes reaching net-zero by 2050, and they also had a goal of 100 percent renewable energy consumption by 2025. We stepped up, and very shortly afterward were pleased to announce that we helped the city achieve that goal five years ahead of schedule by providing 100 percent renewable electricity. In addition, we’re supporting the Climate Action Plan through consulting support—we have a sustainability advisory team—energy-efficiency incentives, and an affinity group program to help the city’s employees purchase discounted renewable electricity.”

Collaboration with startups and fellow corporates is key to developing and adopting new climate technologies. The C2V Initiative is a prime example.

“We feel that collaboration is a good way to identify potential partners and technologies that we can use both to decarbonize our business and also to help our customers reach their own decarbonization goals.”

Decarbonizing a large company requires a multi-faceted approach.

“We think about how to reach our decarbonization goals on a daily basis. We group them in four buckets: decarbonizing our existing business; diversifying into low-emissions businesses; divesting from high-emission assets—since 2014, we’ve divested about 32 GW of net capacity of fossil fuel generation—and offsetting residual emissions.”

If you’re a startup that wants to work with big corporates such as NRG Energy, understanding the company’s roadmap and where you fit into it is what can make or break the partnership discussions.

“Be very clear on your value proposition for our company specifically, and support it with a highly compelling business case. That’s what we, and I’m guessing most other large companies, would be looking for: something that fits a need or solves a problem that we have in a very effective way.”

NRG Energy recently released its 2020 Sustainability Report—read it here, and learn about NRG Energy’s work with Greentown on page 31!

Emily Reichert is the CEO of Greentown Labs, the largest climatetech startup incubator in North America, on a mission to support entrepreneurs tackling the biggest climate and environmental challenges.

Watch the full conversation below!