#24: Corporate climate strategy



Mariko Meier, vice president of marketing, Enel X



Growing up, always being a little bit different has actually been really helpful, particularly in a pretty male- and white-dominated corporate America, and also the energy industry. It helped me, at least, learn how to relate to people who may not have a shared background with me. Relationships are so important in any job. As the U.S. moves increasingly towards caring about diversity, particularly in corporate America, making sure that we’re all able to really relate to people who don’t necessarily have the same shared experiences as us is a key part of leadership.

Mariko Meier: I’m Mariko Meier. I’m the vice president of marketing at Enel X North America.

Libby Wayman: I’m Libby Wayman and I’m an investor at Breakthrough Energy Ventures. I’m also a guest lecturer at MIT, where I teach MIT Energy Ventures, which is a project-based course that brings together students in technology, business, and policy from MIT, and also Harvard, to identify new ideas in energy and climate change, and to learn how to launch a business around them. I’m excited to be hosting the MIT Energy Initiative podcast today. I caught up with Mariko Meier, vice president of marketing at Enel X, in April, in the early days of the corona virus related shutdowns in the U.S. We discuss her background and global upbringing, some key moments throughout her career, as well as the recent trends driving companies large and small to clean energy and climate strategies.

Mariko, welcome. Let me start me off with your current role. What does it mean to be the Vice President of Marketing at Enel X?

MM: Sure. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to be here. Being the Vice President of Marketing at Enel X. Let me talk a little bit about Enel and Enel X. Enel is a multinational power company. We have a presence in over 30 countries. Enel X is the division of Enel that focuses on energy technology and innovation. We help consumers, businesses, and communities really make smarter decisions about how energy is created, stored, and managed. In North America, we have about 3,500 business customers and we also have an EV charging business that’s deploying about 60,000 charging stations across the U.S. We run the gamut across cleantech and energy innovation across North America.

My job, as the vice president of marketing, I focus on our commercial and industrial customers. We have a separate division that focuses on the residential business, so I won’t be talking about that as much today. My job as running the marketing team is really helping our organization think about our products in a customer-centric way. Really making sure that we understand our customer pain points and ensuring that our solutions meet those customer needs. Then, of course, that we’re communicating that to the market.

Any marketer’s job is, of course, to bring in qualified leads and make sure that we’re hitting our sales target. What’s really fun about my job is not just ensuring that our sales team is successful, but making sure that we understand the market, following those trends, and ensuring that we meet what customers are looking for. That’s what I find really fun about my job.

LW: Great. Before we dive in a little bit more to those trends shaping the market and what your customers are looking for and what they’re doing, I’d love to just start off with your background a little bit. As I mentioned, you have a global upbringing. Where did you grow up and when and how did you come to the U.S.?

MM: I am half Japanese and half English. My dad’s British, my mom’s Japanese, they met in Tokyo, and I was actually born in Singapore. We moved a bunch growing up just due to my dad’s job, all over the UK, the U.S., and I spent a lot of time in Peru, actually. My first language is Spanish despite the fact that is neither of my parents’ first language. I came to the U.S. for high school and stayed ever since. I’ve been here now for a pretty long time and became an American. The full immigrant story, really.

LW: It’s super interesting. How do you feel like that background prepared you for your career and did it present any challenges to you?

MM: Growing up, always being a little bit different has actually been really helpful, particularly in a pretty male- and white-dominated corporate America, and also the energy industry. Because you’re used to being a little bit different than everybody else in the room. It helped me, at least, learn how to relate to people who may not have a shared background with me and to create shared experiences and make sure that I’m connecting with people on a personal level, not just on a business and content level. Which is, of course, also important, but relationships are so important in any job. I think that as the U.S. moves increasingly towards caring about diversity, particularly in corporate America, making sure that we’re all able to really relate to people who don’t necessarily have the same shared experiences as us is a key part of leadership and I’m really glad to see that continuing to be part of leadership here.

LW: Absolutely. I think it can be discouraging sometimes when you feel like you can’t relate to people on a personal level when you’re trying to work with them professionally, as well. I think it’s something that we can all work on and overcome the differences that we all have to build relationships and make progress.

MM: Yes, absolutely.

LW: Your career has taken you to some pretty interesting points in history, I think. At one of those junctures, you launched the carbon trading desk at Southern California Edison. Can you tell us about that time?

MM: Sure. First, I want to say, I didn’t personally launch it alone. It was certainly a team effort across a number of different people at So-Cal Edison. At the time, that was when California created their carbon cap-and-trade program. RGGI already existed, but it was the first statewide cap-and-trade program that utilities were fully participating in.

A big part of what I was doing was, along with other folks on the team, making sure that we understood the hundreds of thousands of pages of regulation and making sure that our desk was not just complying with it, but following all the best practices. As we launched it for the first time, we were expecting, and it did, to continue several years, so we wanted to make sure that we were set up for success from the very beginning.

It was definitely a very cool experience because, particularly early in your career, sometimes you feel like you’re just doing what your boss wants you to do. It was really fun to be able to do something where I could see it in the news and see that what I was helping to build was leading the way across the country and across the globe.

Certainly, at that time, politically, we were more hopeful that it would truly lead the way in a more timely manner than what has actually happened, but working in cleantech, you have to remain ever hopeful that we’re moving in that direction.

LW: Indeed. What are the learnings from those early carbon trading days?

MM: To me, and this might be trite and old news to everybody, but what it really highlighted to me is that while businesses and corporations are certainly innovating, without the regulatory push, it becomes really hard to make a significant shift, and certainly the significant shift we need given the climate crisis. To me, I never really had much interest in a public policy career. I always saw myself as someone who would stay in the private sector and I still think that’s the case. It really helped me better understand the importance of policy and how much, not only does the big picture of good policy matter, but the details of good policy matters. It really, for me, created this, at the time, newfound respect for the folks who are not just writing the rules at the highest level, but writing the regulations all the way down to the details because the way that all of that is written… in California, we thought about allowances and what kinds of organizations got allowances and how those were distributed and all of that detail that never makes it into the news, how that gets sorted is really so important to making sure that any policy changes have real impact.

LW: That’s a really good insight. Learning from that experience probably prepared you really well for the role that you have now and the roles that you’ve had throughout your time at EnerNOC. Fast forward, you also spent some time at McKinsey, Southern California Edison, you came to EnerNOC several years ago and have had several roles there. Bring us up to speed on your role there now focusing on the climate piece. What are some of the things that your companies are interested in and motivating them? Is it policy, is it their desire to be cleaner? Your customers are coming to you for ideas on developing and implementing a clean energy and climate strategy. What’s driving them in that objective?

MM: A lot of things are driving our customers right now. It’s a really complex and quickly changing energy landscape. What I’ll add just real quick for listeners who may not know, Libby mentioned EnerNOC. EnerNOC is the company that I joined straight out of business school. A Boston-based cleantech company really focused on demand response over most of its history. EnerNOC was acquired by Enel, the company I now work for, about three years ago now. When we talk about EnerNOC and Enel X, Enel X is the latest iteration of the original EnerNOC. Of course, much bigger. EnerNOC is one of many acquisitions that Enel has made over time to build this Enel X business, as well as internal products that we’ve built.

You asked, what are companies thinking about and when they think about energy strategy, what are the things that are really driving them? When we think about our customers and the commercial and industrial landscape, the CNI landscape more generally, we see three things that are really driving customers when they think about an energy strategy and why they need an energy strategy. The first category is sustainability and climate. These aren’t necessarily in order of importance, it depends on the company, it depends on the leadership, it depends on a lot of different things. The regulatory climate that they’re in.

But category one, sustainability and climate. Category two, risk management and resilience. That can certainly be related to climate. We’re seeing larger and more catastrophic weather events, changes in temperature. All of those things certainly have an impact on a company’s risk management and resilience planning. The third is economics and the bottom line. We’re seeing companies really think about energy as a driver in their business planning and financial planning. That’s been true for a long time. That’s always been a key driver when companies think about energy. I think the fact that all three of these are now, not necessarily on a level playing field for every company, but that they’re all coming into play, is a shift that we’ve seen over the last few years.

LW: On the climate side, certainly, there’s been growing background pressure. What are some of the data points that your customers look at to really understand that this is a priority?

MM: I think that increasingly it’s becoming, or has become, indisputable that the climate is warming. Despite certain policy positions across the U.S. and a few other countries, we’re seeing that companies, particularly the large global ones, have accepted that climate change is real and that it will have an impact both on their business and society as a whole. I love to show this visual, that obviously I can’t on a podcast, that shows the change in monthly temperature of monthly temperature anomalies over the course of the last 150 or so years. It’s really starting in the 1980s that you can see every year we’re seeing that temperatures are above average across all countries across the globe. I think that kind of data, which is continuing and consistent, is really informing companies and policymakers that this is something that regardless of what your political leanings are and what your thoughts are on the quote source of this change that companies will have to adapt to and expect that it’s coming.

LW: I think it’s easy for companies to get wrapped up in the near term impacts that we’re all experiencing from the coronavirus spread, but it’s so important for companies to stay focused on some of these longer term evolutions. As we think about the impact that coronavirus has had on the economy, and then you compare that to the potential impact that just the enormous disruption that climate change could have over time, I think that comparison could be quite staggering. Are you seeing your clients continue their progress on their climate energy strategies in this environment? Are you seeing anyone pulled back? How are you seeing this new environment changing things or not?

MM: That’s a really good question. We think about this a lot at Enel X and how coronavirus is going to impact companies and how they think about their long-term planning. I think the short answer to your question is, we don’t know yet. When we think about what’s happening right now in the economy, a lot of folks like to compare it to what was happening in ’08-’09, as far as the economic downturn that started then.

I was talking about this with a colleague the other day. When we think back to ’08-’09, we all thought it was happening so quickly as it was happening. But If you think back to it, actually, the Bear Stearns stuff happened in May and Lehman Brothers didn’t collapse until, I think, September or October. We had four or five months of, I don’t know if we want to call it warning, but some kind of “things are happening” data out there. That still felt really fast.

This time around, all of this really happened in three weeks, which is crazy. Sorry if you guys can hear my kids in the background, it’s quite relevant, we’re all working from home. Anyway, the three weeks really has been a time where people have just been focused on trying to make it happen, trying to figure out how to get their employees to work from home if they can, or if they’re essential manufacturers, figuring out how to do that. We’ve actually seen some of our clients’ energy usage go up pretty significantly because they’re manufacturing essential goods. We actually have a really cool blog post about it, if anybody wants to check it out on the Energy Smart blog. You can Google it, it will come up. Plug for our great marketing material. Anyway, we’re seeing some short-term shifts. But what that means for long-term planning, I think the answer is, we don’t know yet. Let’s come back in a few months and see what companies are really doing.

I am hopeful that the impact of a global pandemic has really highlighted for both corporations and the government how a crisis like this can have massive negative impacts on the economy, on the population, et cetera. That means that we will be thinking more seriously about what we need to do to mitigate the impacts of climate change. It also does give me some hope about the ability of society, business, government to come together to solve… well, I shouldn’t say it’s solved, but to try to solve a pretty massive global issue. On the other hand, in times of crisis, people and companies tend to focus on what’s urgent which makes sense. Long-term planning of any kind, whether it be related to climate and energy or just related to long-term financial planning, can take a backseat.

The short answer is, jury is out. We don’t know yet exactly how it’s going to impact. But I’m hopeful that it will have a positive impact as far as how companies are thinking holistically about global issues and how they impact their company, their employees, and their customers.

LW: Certainly, one thing that’s working in the favor of continued focus on clean energy strategies is the cost picture. Can you talk about how the falling cost of renewables has impacted your customers and their bottom line?

MM: New renewable build has been cheaper than conventional new build for a few years now. That’s not necessarily new information. That’s part of what’s really driven the growth in renewable build in North America and across the globe for the last several years. What we’re seeing now is that, actually, new build of unsubsidized wind and solar is actually cheaper than the marginal cost of existing conventional generation.

That means that it might actually be cheaper to, at a grid scale, mothball certain plants and replace them with new build renewables. Or at a corporate level to go with your own renewable PPA, power purchase agreement, for your supply. Not solely for environmental reasons, but actually for economic reasons. We’re seeing companies make pledges and commitments to renewable purchases. Certainly, for environmental reasons, but also for economic reasons. When we’re seeing these massive pledges, as much as I would love to say that these companies are making these pledges solely for environmental reasons, you know that economics are also at play. What’s so great about it is that you can actually do both at the same time now.

LW: Absolutely. I think economics needs to drive it. There will always be early adopters who will do things for the benefit of the global society, but it’s scale that will be driven by the economics. You mentioned PPAs and procuring renewable energy. Is this just for large corporations who have the resources to devote a team to thinking through renewable PPAs or are there services now, maybe through Enel X or others, that can allow a broader set of companies and corporate actors to implement clean energy and climate strategies?

MM: One of the things that we at Enel X really pride ourselves on is our ability to meet customers where they are on their energy journey, if you want to call it that. Sustainability journey, energy maturity curve, lots people like to call it different things. What that means is that if you are, say, Microsoft. and you have made these massive commitments to be carbon negative, as they did in January of this year, or Google and you make these huge procurements, Enel X can certainly help you either procure renewable energy. Enel can actually—big Enel, not just Enel X—big Enel can actually develop new renewable projects on your behalf. We can also help companies better monetize assets that they already have. If you already have a massive PPA, there may be other things you can do to get better value out of your assets.

At the same time, if you’re a smaller company or even a big company that hasn’t really committed the resources to thinking about renewable strategy, at Enel X, one of the things we do is we run these renewable workshops with customers. If you’re a customer that’s saying, “Well, I think I have these sustainability commitments,” or “I’m a little bit concerned about long-term pricing when I think about what my utility is telling me,” et cetera et cetera, we have market experts who can help companies think through what it is that they’re trying to optimize for. Whether it’s risk, whether it’s pricing, whether it’s clean energy, or probably a mix of all of those things, to better understand what their strategy is. We’ve seen companies who do it entirely in-house. We’ve seen companies who use a third-party for a portion of it, maybe just advisory, maybe just the procurement, and then we’ve seen companies who just outsource the whole thing and say, “I don’t really want to think about energy very much. I just know I have to hit these commitments and I want to ensure that I’m not exposing myself to crazy price fluctuations.” Anywhere you are on that spectrum, there are certainly companies, Enel X being one of them, who can help you navigate that world.

LW: You mentioned Microsoft’s commitment to go carbon negative. Certainly, there was an emergence of companies making carbon commitments. Can you talk through that piece a little bit? That seems like a voluntary carbon pledge. What’s the market like today for voluntary carbon mitigation actions? How do they accomplish those goals? Being involved in the carbon trading schemes early on. how do you envision this unfolding and growing over time?

MM: I think that what we’re seeing increasingly is a push across the market for companies to consider climate in their long-term planning. For the last several years, for example, Walmart has pushed its suppliers to have certain sustainability metrics in order to continue to be a supplier to Walmart. If you are a manufacturer of, basically any household staple, if you’re not supplying to Walmart, you’re probably not doing very well. Ensuring that they’re hitting certain targets, they’re reporting on sustainability, et cetera, has been something that Walmart has been able to push to its suppliers for a long time now.

What we’re seeing increasingly is now that pressure from the investment side. For example, Larry Fink, who is the CEO BlackRock, wrote his annual letter this year to chief executives and the investment market saying that his firm, BlackRock, is going to avoid investments in companies that, I believe the quote was something like, “Present a high sustainability related risk.” BlackRock is the largest investor in the world. What BlackRock does, companies certainly follow. That letter every year does have an impact on the market. We’re seeing other investment firms also really think about sustainability-related risk and how they think about allocating capital with that in mind. It’s less about, you have to have a sustainability report that’s glossy and beautiful and has pictures of windmills, but more about as climate change happens, which it will, or I should say is already happening, how will your company fare and how has your company planned to be resilient in this evolving landscape?

LW: Got it. You mentioned the resilience piece also as another driver for companies pursuing energy and climate strategies. What are some of the actions that they’re taking to improve their resilience that’s also in line with the climate and carbon goals?

MM: When it comes to resilience and risk reduction, I think it’s useful to think about that in two categories. There’s the physical risk associated with climate change and then there’s the, I think people call it the transition risk or the regulatory risk associated with it. Transition risk being we expect at some point for government policy to change, whether it be at the international, national, state, or local level. There will be policies that favor more clean energies, more sustainable practices, et cetera. For companies to make sure that they are well-positioned in that changing landscape, regardless of whether it happens next month or next decade, to start thinking about making sure that they are prepared for those changes is a great resilience plan.

The second one, or I guess the first one I mentioned around physical risk, is one that I think people think about first, maybe. Which is around, we’re probably going to see more hurricanes, we’re going to see more heatwaves, we’re going to see more floods, et cetera. I’m not sure if you remember, but when Hurricane Sandy happened in New York, lower Manhattan lost power. Almost all of lower Manhattan lost power. Goldman Sachs was actually this building that was lit up like a beacon in lower Manhattan. It actually created a ton of negative press for them, as you can imagine, with every hospital and first responder not having power and then Goldman Sachs having the entire building lit up top to bottom. Lots of great headlines around the haves and the have nots, et cetera. Great if you’re selling newspapers, terrible if you’re Goldman Sachs. After that, there were a number of interviews with Lloyd Blankfein, who was the CEO of Goldman Sachs at that time. He actually pointed out specifically that they learned a ton from 9/11. When they built their building, they built it with resiliency and redundancy in mind. A lot of backup power. They invested a bunch in testing and preparation and resilience planning and all of those things, because of the terrible time they went through in 9/11. There are these pictures online, you can Google it. The day before the hurricane, they put 25,000 sandbags around their building, which is a crazy number. You just see these pictures and he has a quote that says, “We looked ridiculous.”

What I love about that quote and that whole story is that what once seemed ridiculous is now viewed as smart planning. We all certainly hope that we don’t have a Hurricane Sandy-like event in New York for the foreseeable future, or anywhere in the world, but the reality of climate change means that those kinds of things are going to happen more often.

As companies think about redundancy and resilience planning, et cetera, I think what we’re seeing as a shift is what was once considered ridiculous is now considered good planning. We’re increasingly seeing that in not just the sustainability reports but just broader annual reports and planning in general across companies in the U.S. and around the globe.

LW: Great point. I love that notion that the ridiculous has now just become good planning. I think we’ve seen that certainly in the levels of renewables that have been integrated into the grid. We’re now installing, on a global basis, more renewables than all other sources of energy combined, and exceeding levels of penetration that many experts thought would be problematic. That I think is a good example of what bridges near-term and long-term.

How do you get people and your customers, particularly new customers who might adopt energy strategies, to think about this vague notion of climate change that may be a long-term impact but then actually bring out the really near-term, immediate issues that they should be thinking about and planning for? How do you make it real to them?

MM: I think the sad reality is it’s happening right now. There’s a lot of data out there that shows that this isn’t a 2030, 2040, 2050 issue. I mean, it is a 2030 through 2050 issue as well. I was actually at this presentation a few weeks ago. Wellington Management is doing a bunch of research with the Woods Hole Institute on weather change from climate change across North America and across the globe, and specifically the risk associated with that from their perspective as an investment firm and Woods Hole, obviously, as a research institution.

One of the things that they pointed out in this presentation is that the number of additional days per year in what they define as the National Weather Service danger zone is really going to change even over the next 10 years. The NWS danger zone is defined as days that are above a certain temperature and above a certain humidity. I think it’s like 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 80% humidity or something like that, I don’t know the exact numbers, where it’s basically dangerous for a human being to be outside for an extended period of time.

They’ve done a bunch of research that shows that the southern United States is going to be so significantly impacted over the next decade. One of the things they pointed out, one of the things they found, is that by the 2020s, so this decade, Houston is expected to have 64 more days of extreme heat every year than it did during a base period of 1950 to 1980. That’s going to be 82 more days by the 2040s. I think that we’ve had a lot of data around, “by 2040, by 2050, by 2060 this kind stuff is happening,” and that feels very far away. But this shows that it’s this decade. By the 2020s, that’s right now, 64 more days of extreme heat. That’s two months more in which it is dangerous for a human being to be outside for an extended period than 1980. That’s such a change. I think that kind of data that shows that the impact is happening already, that’s kind of baked in. I say kind of, it is baked in. The systems—and I’m certainly no climate scientist—but the systems are somewhat delayed. Even if we stopped emitting every ton of carbon across the globe tomorrow, just snapped our fingers and it happened, that would be baked in. This 64 more days of extreme heat is happening in this next decade no matter what. This kind of data I think is really what’s pushing companies to say, “I need to make changes, not just in my carbon emissions, et cetera, but I need to make changes in my resiliency planning. I need to make changes into how my company and my business is going to operate in the near term because the climate has changed.” And it will continue to change over the next decade, frankly, no matter what we do, even in the most hopeful of scenarios.

LW: I think that’s a great point and a great call to action. If there’s one thing that I think we can take inspiration from how our society is pulling together to address the coronavirus spread, is that when we do decide to work together to solve a big global problem, we can seemingly stop it in its tracks. With that, before we close, I do want to ask a personal question. We heard some small voices chime in from the background during this podcast. I, myself, I’m hiding from my kids surrounded by pillows in this little makeshift recording studio. We’re all making changes in the near-term and thinking through how our lives will be a little bit different longer-term. Share with us your experience. How are you managing the day-to-day and how are you managing with your team and how are you thinking through both the near-term and the longer-term?

MM: Great question. I think the first thing that’s been really helpful for me in adjusting to this current setup is just to remember how incredibly lucky I am to be able to work from home. How grateful I am to not just the medical community, but to everyone who is providing an essential service, whether it’s delivery people, garbage people, et cetera, et cetera. Just helping to make sure that our cities and towns continue to work while most of us have the privilege of sheltering at home. I think that’s particularly useful to think about when my child is screaming at me about watching another episode of Daniel Tiger while I’m trying to manage a conference call. Just remembering how lucky I am to have even the option to be working productively while keeping myself and my family safe is important to keep in mind.

At the same time, I think it’s also important to give yourself forgiveness that it is also hard. Even though my life is not certainly as challenging as so many others today, there are moments and hours where I think, man, I really wish I were in my office working at a desk that’s not a pile of seven Harry Potter books holding my computer up. The things that I found really useful are one, blocking time where I can. My husband also works, he’s a teacher, he teaches high school calculus. His Zoom calls are much more stressful than mine because trying to get a hundred high schoolers at once to listen to you explain calculus over Zoom is just a really fun environment, as you can imagine.

LW: Can’t even imagine.

MM: Again, it’s all relative. Everyone’s struggle is relative. I think just blocking the time where I can. One of the nice things about John being a teacher is that his hours are pretty fixed. It’s when the students are logging in to listen and then he can grade more flexibly later in the day. Being able to block the time where he’s watching the kids and when I’m watching the kids has been really helpful, as opposed to trying to flip back and forth every hour or whatever it is that we were trying in the first week, which was just a disaster. I think the other thing that’s been pretty helpful is that the weather has changed a little bit. We can get outside a little bit more. I think the first month, or I say month, it hasn’t been, the first two weeks we were really locked inside because it was raining it felt like constantly, has made a really big difference in mood and all of that.

On a more professional note, I’ve been really impressed with how easily my team has transitioned to video conferences and all of that kind of stuff. We’ve been using the tools, I’m certainly no IT expert, but I really like Microsoft Teams, that’s what we’re using. There was a bunch of add-ons out there that folks on my team have discovered, like Trello and other things. You can create virtual whiteboards and check in on things more easily instead of having to send one million emails. The tools are out there, certainly, and I think it’ll be really interesting to see where we end up on the other side of this as far as remote work and virtual work and all of that kind of stuff. I think that one of the things I found really interesting to observe is that some of the folks on our leadership team who were pretty skeptical about remote work have really come around to the fact that it can work pretty well.

The jury’s still out. If you’ve been the only remote person on your team, for example, it’s really hard to hear a conference if everyone else is in the room and you’re the one remote person. It works a lot better if everybody’s remote. We’ll see as we transition back to whatever the new normal ends up being, how it works out. But I think it will have a pretty big impact on how people work moving forward. We’ll see how it goes.

LW: Mariko, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing with companies across the spectrum, from large to small companies and around the world, to craft and develop and execute their energy strategies. Thanks also for the work that Enel is doing. Definitely, critical infrastructure that they’re maintaining and keeping going during this period. Just thanks for taking the time today to have a chat with us.

MM: Thank you so much for having me. It was a really good chat. Talk to you soon.

LW: Thanks.

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