It’s a rare CEO that would travel almost 3,500 miles to do field research, but Gwenaëlle Avice-Huet, head of ENGIE North America, Inc., a company whose mission is two-fold – a zero-carbon transition and a zero-carbon economy – left her new home in Houston last year to go on a week-long trip to Greenland, as part of an expedition with the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, to witness the melting of the polar ice caps for herself.
“Everything fell apart, like a tsunami. The local with me said he had never seen that. We have to be concerned and understand in depth what is happening.” She says seeing “how impactful, how severe” the situation is has motivated her to push even harder for solutions.
Avice-Huet, a molecular chemist by training, spent her early career as a French civil servant, conducting scientific research for the government. After earning an engineering diploma, she served as an advisor to various French ministers (including the energy minister), regarding climate change issues, energy competitiveness, and international climate negotiations.
“My personal commitment is to environmental issues, [including] climate change, and that’s why I wanted to join a company in the private sector with a clear purpose. ENGIE wanted to be the leader in the energy transition and we took bold moves – and we continue to. It’s amazing what’s been done. That’s a true differentiator and why I’m passionate about this group.”
Under her leadership as Director General of Renewables from 2016 – 2019, ENGIE became number one in France in wind and solar power. Last year, she became an executive vice-president of ENGIE, responsible for renewables worldwide. “We have 27 gigawatts of installed capacity worldwide and a huge development path in various technologies – new technologies – like green hydrogen. The rhythm of development that we have today is incredible.”
In the past four years in North America, ENGIE provided gas, liquified natural gas (LNG), terminals, production of electricity based on natural gas (“thermal generation, basically”), but a transformation has been underway in order to focus on the energy transition.
“We are developing renewables, but that’s brand new. Last year, we developed 500 megawatts and this year we’re building twice as much. I wanted to accompany our development in North America based on my experience in renewables. So that’s one of our pillars in North America.”
“The second is cloud solutions. We have many clients that want to play a role in climate change issues and the energy transition. They have two ways to improve their carbon footprint: reduce energy consumption – consuming less is better for the environment – and the other element is consuming green, and this is renewables. We combine both and our value position is to de-carbonize their activity. We see momentum here in North America. That’s extremely positive for the environment.”
ENGIE NA has been developing corporate Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for companies that want green energy and counts Microsoft
, Wal-Mart, Target
, EY, and other large corporations among its clients. Avice-Huet says municipalities, hospitals, and universities also want to play a role in the transition.
“Universities are like a big city – they have heating and cooling networks and on-site generation facilities. Because they want to focus on their core business, which is education and research, they want to outsource the energy component and have someone guide them in order to reduce their carbon footprint.”
Two years ago, ENGIE created a value position for Ohio State University to help reduce consumption, improve its facilities to enable better performance and to provide green energy. Along with Axium, its partner in the project, ENGIE entered into a 50-year concession agreement, valued at $1.165 billion USD, with the assets being transferred to ENGIE, and operated as ENGIE on behalf of the university.
“The young generation is asking for renewables, asking to understand climate change and how they can move the needle. We offer training and action, so they can understand the impact of their consumption on the environment. At Ohio State, we will have an updated building for innovation. We want to show the technology of the future, attract start-ups and big companies. For students, it’s an opportunity to be in connection with people working for energy transition solutions.”
Other universities are expressing interest in the model and this past December, having weathered strong competition during the tendering process, ENGIE and Meridiam were awarded a 50-year utility management concession, valued at over $1 billion USD, by the University of Iowa.
Despite the progress in North America and abroad, in January, the ENGIE board of directors made the decision not to renew the mandate of CEO Isabelle Kocher, an engineer and physicist by training, and the only woman running a CAC 40 company. Avice-Huet, who had a personal relationship with Kocher and was part of her team in France, credits Kocher with making a “big, bold move,” when she launched ENGIE’s transformation upon taking the helm in 2016. Of her ouster, Avice-Huet simply says, “We have to acknowledge the board’s decision.”
General secretary Claire Waysand, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, is acting as interim CEO while the group searches for Kocher’s replacement. Whether that will be a woman remains to be seen. Even before quotas were instituted, women made up 45% of ENGIE’s board. Currently, Marie-José Nadeau, Françoise Malrieu, and Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière serve as independent directors, and Isabelle Bui, appointed by ministerial order, is the director representing the French State.
Having prominent women in decision-making positions, “is a way to attract talent,” says Avice-Huet, “and I want the best talent.”
Avice-Huet believes her high-profile role and her involvement in WEF’s Young Global Leaders, as well as ENGIE’s Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), show her commitment to being “very vigilant about the position of women in the company.” She feels it is incumbent upon leadership to demonstrate its belief in its female employees and to “accompany” them in their careers, and make clear they do not have to choose between their personal and professional lives.
Perhaps there’s no greater show of faith than the fact that in 2016 ENGIE nominated Avice-Huet as Director General of Renewables on the same day she gave birth to twin sons. “I organized my team so that I could take time off and I had the confidence of management. I want to share my experience and my conviction that it’s possible.”
“We have to be an example. The company must be reflective of society.”