French Energy Exec Bullish on U.S. Low-Carbon Opportunities

Cara Proszek

Benjamin Hulac, E&E News reporter

For all the Trump administration has done to support fossil fuels domestically and overseas, low-carbon companies in the United States still have an edge against foreign competition, according to Mathias Lelievre, CEO of the data analytics arm of French energy giant Engie SA.

“The way innovation is allowed [in the United States] to just go to market very fast … it’s kind of the culture and the flow of money,” Lelievre said in an interview, comparing U.S. and European markets.

Although the Trump administration has said it intends to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a move that would crimp low-carbon investment in the United States, Lelievre remains bullish.

“At the same time, you see businesses continue to invest,” he said. “There’s nowhere else in the world where it’s happening so quickly,” he added. “And that’s why the U.S. might catch up at the end of the day.”

Since 2016, Engie, a $38 billion energy company in which the French government owns a one-quarter stake, has been cleaving off units of its business related to coal power, liquefied natural gas, and oil and gas drilling.

Now, with Engie in the final year of a three-year plan to sharply move toward renewables, natural gas and information technology, Lelievre is reading the company’s digital tea leaves.

The subsidiary Lelievre heads, Engie Insight Services Inc., tracks energy consumption of its clients, which are other businesses. The company monitors 800,000 buildings worldwide, tracking electricity, water and energy use.

Lelievre’s team then scours the figures and coaches its corporate clients on where they can trim their energy consumption.

“What are my best buildings? Why are they better than others? How can I help them catch up?” he said.

“First, you need to understand what’s going on,” he added. “You can start to dig into that.”

Of the 150,000 Engie employees, two-thirds are working in energy services departments — talking with clients and focusing on energy efficiency improvements.

Engie is betting heavily on the success of renewables and natural gas. Even changes in the company’s physical presence sends a signal. While Engie’s general U.S. base is in Houston, long the American capital for the oil industry, Insight is headquartered in Spokane, Wash.

“When you look at the shifts we made,” Lelievre said, referring broadly to the high-carbon asset sales, “we de-risked the company.”

The physical toll of climate change is not showing yet on Engie’s balance sheet, he said. But humanity will soon increasingly feel its impacts, he warned.

“That’s all the challenge with climate change, that slow movement,” he said. “We will start to see it more and more,” he added. “There is still hope for us to save us from ourselves.”