As the outlook on global climate change grows more dire by the year, there is growing public demand for corporations to become part of the solution. A 2019 study found that 59% of consumers expected any company they did business with to take action on climate issues — up from 39% just a year earlier.
Badar Khan knows that when it comes to climate change, National Grid is not just any company. As president of the international energy provider's US operations, Khan recognises the outsize role National Grid plays in shaping the future of global power consumption. And so he's embracing that responsibility by investing in the kind of large-scale, innovative solutions that could bring about a fundamental shift in the world's relationship with energy.
"Other companies can choose to participate in the journey to a clean-energy future," Khan says. "But for National Grid, as a customer-focused energy company, we need to be leading the way."
The path to a sustainable future
National Grid is one of the world's largest investor-owned energy companies, providing natural gas, electricity, and clean energy to millions of people across the US and the UK. In 2018, National Grid US made clear its intention to lead on environmental issues with the debut of the Northeast 80X50 Pathway, a blueprint for New York and New England to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by approximately 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The path to this ambitious goal focuses primarily on three sectors: power generation, transportation, and heat.
In the power-generation sector, National Grid has already made great strides in shifting to renewable energy sources, with zero-carbon electricity now accounting for over 50% of electricity generation in the Northeast.
In transportation — which contributes over 40% of greenhouse-gas emissions in the Northeast — National Grid is facilitating the shift to electric vehicles by investing in charging infrastructure, system standardisation, and public education.
For the heating sector, for which New England's chilly climate poses a particular challenge, the Pathway calls for doubling the rate of efficiency retrofits and converting nearly all of the region's 5 million oil-heated buildings to electric heat pumps or natural gas. "There is a great deal of room for innovation on how to decarbonise the heating sector, which is why we're looking at things like renewable natural gas, hydrogen, and geothermal solutions, as well as major programs to replace leak-prone pipes to reduce emissions from our gas network," Khan says.
But National Grid isn't focused solely on its customers' energy consumption. Last year, the company announced its intention to reduce its own emissions to net zero by 2050 across its US and UK businesses. And by the end of March 2019, it had already reduced its emissions by 68% below 1990 levels, exceeding its interim target of 45% by 2020.
"This is really about what we can control as a business to do our part in lessening the impact of climate change," Khan says.
The experience to innovate
Khan's ambitious environmental goals for National Grid are rooted in 25 years of energy-industry experience on both sides of the Atlantic. As a young consultant in the UK, Khan advised electric utilities entering a deregulated market, where they were forced to compete for customers for the first time. In the early 2000s, he brought those lessons to bear on the restructuring and deregulation process in Texas and the Northeast. Later, he served as CEO of Direct Energy, one of North America's largest providers of electricity, natural gas, and energy-related services.
Before starting his current role in 2019, Khan was president of National Grid Ventures, an offshoot of National Grid that focuses on developing projects, partnerships, and technologies that accelerate the development of clean energy. There he oversaw numerous groundbreaking projects, including the construction of subsea interconnectors in Europe that enable the UK to trade and transfer electricity with other countries — a notable feat in the age of Brexit. He also oversaw the creation of National Grid Partners, a venture investment and innovation unit that seeks to partner with entrepreneurs in the energy and technology sectors that are working toward a clean-energy future.
A new kind of crisis
As providers of an essential commodity, energy companies pride themselves on being prepared for the unexpected. But COVID-19 has presented a new kind of challenge, forcing National Grid to take unprecedented steps, such as sequestering workers who were critical to the flow of power and gas, while keeping focused on long-term goals.
"Probably the most disruptive element of the pandemic has been how we are rethinking what a 'workplace' is and how we engage our employees in a remote world," Khan says. "All of this is leading us and companies across all industry sectors to use this pandemic to define a 'better normal' — not just in terms of the relationships we have between our employees, but also how we think about health and the environment across society more broadly."
Thinking about National Grid's impact on the environment and society has long been at the heart of Khan's mission. As he helps lead his industry toward a clean-energy future, he remains excited about the possibilities.
"It's an opportunity for us to advance environmental goals, create jobs, and really leave things a bit better than we found them for the next generation," Khan says. "This opportunity will require unprecedented innovation, but National Grid is up to the challenge."
This article is part of "The Changemakers' Playbook," a series that looks at innovation across different industries.
This post was created by Insider Studios (Business Insider) with ING.