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Three CEO Tips from an MBA Class in Sustainable Energy
Industry leaders from tech companies, startups and utilities share their case studies

The Energy Industry is at a major turning point for the first time.

For more than 100 years, the fundamentals of power generation, transmission and distribution have remained largely the same. Now the sustainable energy revolution has completely shaken things up. From renewables to electric vehicles and smart grids, dozens of changes are rapidly unfolding within the industry.

As the sustainable energy revolution continues to roll on, now is the perfect time for us to jump in and get involved.

In a short time span, the Sustainable Energy Immersion course at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management truly captured just how diverse this industry has become. Each week, my class met a different industry leader from utilities, tech companies and start-ups. One week we were discussing the role of Microsoft in reducing carbon emissions and the next we were learning how a geothermal heating startup should best position itself in its market.

Bruce Karas Vice President of Environment, Sustainability, Safety and Technical Information Coca-Cola North America

My classmates came from a broad range of backgrounds. The class was a mix of UC Davis students from the Full- and Part-Time MBA programs, the Energy Graduate Group and the School of Engineering. Although some were focused on science and others on business, we were all passionate about the energy industry and how we could make a difference.

The best part about this was the interdisciplinary focus of the case studies. Each week, we teamed up with folks we wouldn’t normally work with and saw how different perspectives influenced potential solutions.

From the speakers, three themes stood out for me:

1. “How can we leverage our core strengths and abilities?” – Fong Wan, PG&E

Microsoft, Coca-Cola and PG&E are drastically different companies. But executives from all three each stressed how they are leveraging their company’s core strengths in making positive impacts in reducing carbon emissions.

For Microsoft that might mean tackling energy projects that require heavy data analysis. The power of scalability means that small improvements in the supply chain, such as refrigeration methods, can lead to large decreases in overall energy usage for Coca-Cola. The “traditional” energy company of the bunch, PG&E applies core strengths like capital infrastructure expertise toward building out EV charging stations.

2. “Don’t accept the status quo.” – Larry Kellerman, TFC Utilities

While the energy industry has remained constant for decades, we need to really think outside the box to address the new challenges and opportunities the digital age presents to us.

A company like Twenty First Century (TFC) Utilities is finding new opportunities to transform the traditional utility model. Geothermal heating startup Dandelion Energy is in a balancing act in adopting Silicon Valley technology and using it to disrupt northeastern energy markets. And the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is seeking out alternative revenue sources to continue their company mission of bringing the best value to their customers.

3. “How am I going to make a difference?” – Mark Vanderhelm, Walmart

All of us in this Immersion class cared deeply about the environment and finding ways to combat climate change. In a perfect world, we would love to see the planet make the jump to everything having a net-zero carbon impact. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and need to factor in the three-legged stool of technology, finance and the regulatory environment.

Dandelion Energy

All of the speakers were also passionate about this idea. But there were some unusual players. Retail giant Walmart is now heavily focusing on reducing their carbon emissions and dropping their landfill waste to zero. The Alaska Permanent Fund is looking for ways to invest in natural gas—it’s admittedly a fossil fuel, but could serve as a short-term “bridge-fuel” as the U.S. (and the rest of the globe) is phasing out the worst pollutants, such as coal.

That final question is really at the heart of this Immersion class. Of course. we want great careers. I ran several ROI calculations myself before starting my MBA path. But it’s more important for us to make a positive impact in this industry.

As the sustainable energy revolution continues to roll on, now is the perfect time for us to jump in and get involved.