All Frontline Leadership Spotlight on Leadership

3 Inspirational Energy Leaders for 2021 and Beyond

 2021 is set to be a pivotal year in the realm of energy. It marks the year that many major global oil and gas companies begin their transitions towards renewable sources, the year President Biden will invest $2 trillion into an “equitable green energy future,” and Britain will play host to the highly-anticipated COP 26 UN climate summit. 

In this exploration, in partnership with our sponsors JMW Consultants, we will look at this year’s movers and shakers within the energy industry. In essence, the individuals that are leading their respective sectors towards greener solutions. Many leaders could be considered influential in this pursuit, but we’ve chosen Elon Musk of electric car manufacturer Tesla, Jérôme Pécresse of GE Renewable Energy and Diane Gilpin, CEO of the Smart Green Shipping Alliance. All are set to play pivotal roles in the changing energy narrative through visionary goal-setting, intelligent innovation and sheer determination. 

Let’s start with the most well known of the group; Elon Musk:


Elon Musk – From Visionary to World’s Richest Man

On 6th of January 2021, Tesla’s stock enjoyed a 4.8% uptick and took Elon Musk beyond the wealth of the world’s previous holder of the title, Jeff Bezos, to become the world’s richest man. The South Africa-born engineer’s net worth was $188.5 billion at 10:15 a.m. in New York, $1.5 billion more than Bezos, who has held the top spot since October 2017. The announcement capped an extraordinary 12 months for Musk who managed to amass more than $150 billion in the last year, breaking all kinds of wealth creation records.

But what was behind the 743% increase in Tesla’s stock price in 2020? In short, profitability. Many corporations in the energy sector and other industries looking to “go green” have made pledges, but have yet to square the circle of delivering clean energy initiatives while producing impressive financial results (BP comes to mind as an example). However, Tesla has achieved this feat in spades, and it’s no accident that it has come about under Elon Musk’s leadership. 

The visionary CEO who transcends industries has put everything on the line on more than one occasion to ensure Tesla’s success. Whether it was sleeping on the factory floor every night until he found a resolution to the Model 3’s production problems, or when he spent every last dollar he had on keeping Tesla going when the recession almost drove the company out of existence in 2010, Musk’s leadership style has a significant role to play in his and Tesla’s success. The self-confessed workaholic inspires his team members by putting in hour after hour into his businesses. He deliberately sets (almost) unattainable goals and forces employees to think creatively to provide solutions that will get results at break-neck speed. 

Another reason why he is going to shape 2021 is that his goals are much loftier than other leaders in the energy space. His aim to save the human race from itself, protect the Earth from climate-change-induced disaster, and eventually find a way to elevate humans to a multi-planetary species is genuinely visionary. The absurd truth is that he’s well on the path to achieving those goals. These lofty goals are not a new feature of Elon’s behaviour either; as Dan Spiwack, CEO of JMW says ‘Throughout his professional life, Elon Musk has demonstrated the potential motivating energy of setting highly aspirational goals and targets for his businesses and employees.  His leadership vision has helped catalyse extraordinary progress in a number of exceptional pioneering tech companies aiming to reshape market realities and our world.’

Rocket ships and space travel aside, Musk will drive fundamental changes to how the world consumes clean energy over the coming decade. Work has already begun on an entry-level electric car to bring electric motoring to the masses, the Tesla solar roof project is gaining momentum and paving the way for self-sufficient homes and battery development is set to gain premium Tesla vehicles the same range as even the most efficient combustion-engine counterparts. The best part? The ever-increasing market cap gives him a licence to achieve world-altering change at a pace as yet unseen. 

Jérôme Pécresse – A Leader of Intelligent Innovation

Jérôme Pécresse is a fundamentally different leader from Elon Musk and certainly nowhere near as high-profile or eccentric. However, he is leading a much quieter revolution as head of GE Renewable Energy. Under his stewardship, the company is slowly but surely reshaping the map for green electricity supply. Today, the company has a hand in 400 GW of renewable energy installed worldwide, including 40,000 wind turbines and a quarter of the globe’s hydroelectric stations. Perhaps even more impressive is their market dominance of grid technology, with 90% of utilities utilising GE-developed grid solutions. 

Impressive as these achievements are, what’s notable about Pécresse’s leadership is that he takes a holistic view of the energy problems we face today. Right across the company, he has helped to devise and implement intelligent and innovative solutions that lower the impact of GE Renewable Energy’s entire ecosystem. 

For instance, he has an incredible knack for pulling technology from GE’s more traditional sectors to iterate and innovate it into superior solutions for renewable products and services. A notable achievement under his leadership came in the form of wind turbine innovation; by pooling talent from R&D situated in departments right across the company, GE Renewable Energy used imaging algorithms designed for the healthcare system for sensors embedded in their wind turbine blades. They leveraged similar knowledge to borrow gearbox innovations from their transportation business and utilised control systems initially developed for aeroplanes in their wind turbines. Finally, they’ve partnered with waste management firm Veolia North America to recycle old wind turbine blades into the raw materials required for cement, dramatically reducing each installation’s environmental impact.  

Those are just a few examples of Pécresse’s ability to think outside the box and develop industry-leading innovation. According to Dan Spiwack ‘Pecresse provides a clear example of the type of leadership often required to meet the challenges of the sustainable energy transition – taking a more integrated and systemic view of challenges and the types of approaches and solutions best suited to overcome them’. However while he may be a very different personality and leadership  from Musk, they share similarities in their views, such as encouraging knowledge sharing and collaboration with a view to helping the environment. Just as Musk has released all Tesla patents in an effort to speed up the production of electric cars, Pécresse has been unashamed in reaching out to fellow competitors to try and crack the most significant challenges facing the industry. The partnership between GE and fellow energy major Total to develop hybrid gas-solar solutions for industrial use in developing countries and remote regions is just one example of him finding like-minded competitors to help solve some of the world’s most pressing energy problems, such as third-world renewable energy production. 

Diane Gilpin – A Story of Determination to Turn Shipping Green

Shipping containers present one of the most significant threats to our climate. Many of the biggest cargo ships produce more carbon emissions than entire countries. Just one container ship can produce the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. In fact, if the shipping industry were a country, it would be ranked sixth between Germany and Japan as the sixth-largest contributor of CO2 emissions.

While tremendous strides have been made to tackle the pollution caused by road-going vehicles, almost nothing has been done about the enormous gas-guzzling ships that bring even the greenest of cars to our shores. For a decade now, Diane Gilpin has been drawing attention to the problems associated with shipping. In 2013, she founded the Smart Green Shipping Alliance, and she’s been leading the charge to decarbonise one of the worst offending industries ever since. The goal of her alliance, which is made up of experts from 170 countries, is for all shipping reaching the UK to be powered by renewable energy by 2030. Notably, this target is two decades ahead of the shipping industry’s target of 50% by 2050. 

But it has been a struggle. Market uptake on her ideas has been slow, and it’s only through sheer determination that she is now starting to drive the changes required of the industry. For over a decade, she has been championing wind-powered ships as a solution. Whilst director of B9 shipping in 2009, she helped oversee the development of a 100% renewable cargo ship, which harnessed the power of wind and used backup engines powered by biogas from municipal waste. And yet, not a single prototype has been built. Gilpin says, “The biggest challenge is getting market uptake. Everybody loves the pictures; everybody loves the story. But nobody puts the money into it.”

But at long last, a few forward-thinking companies have heeded Diane’s calls for a renewable shipping sector. Sweden’s Wallenius Marine AB, which designs and builds ships, is one such company. It’s currently developing an automobile carrier in a bay in the Baltic Sea that uses the latest sail technology (which looks  more like aircraft wings than sails) to propel itself. The “Oceanbird” will be 200 metres long with the capacity to carry 7,000 cars. It may be the tallest sailing ship ever built, equipped with wing sails reaching 105 metres above the water. The cargo ship, which will have an engine back up, will reduce carbon emissions by as much as 90% per journey. When completed, it’s estimated that it will take 12 days to cross the Atlantic instead of the 8 taken by a fossil-fuel-powered cargo ship. 

Along with Diane Gilpin, the company believes the enormous savings in fuel expenditure will offset the inconvenience of a slower journey time and prove the concept to be not just commercially-feasible, but preferable. While it may just be one ship, it could mark the start of a maritime revolution that wouldn’t be possible without the determined leadership of Diane Gilpin. Dan Spiwack’s take is that she’s been willing to look beyond what is taken for granted as “given” in a well established industry and has stood up for innovative outcomes that stand to benefit both the industry and most importantly the world.

After years of deafening silence, suddenly the industry is actively exploring alternative fuels (such as hydrogen), the capabilities of wind-harnessing technology and how to retrofit devices that reduce the carbon footprint of each journey made by these monstrous sea-going vessels.