General Motors, Coca-Cola, NRG Energy: Sustainability leaders at Brainstorm Green

General Motors' Dan Akerson at Brainstorm Green
General Motors’ Dan Akerson at Brainstorm Green

Dan Akerson, the chief of executive of General Motors, loves the Chevy Volt. Bea Perez of Coca-Cola is backing inventor Dean Kamen, who wants to take a water-purification machine to the global south. David Crane, the chief executive of NRG Energy, would like to see solar panels on half the rooftops in America.

They all spoke at Fortune Brainstorm Green, the magazine’s conference about business and the environment conference, last week in Laguna Niguel, CA. I’ve been co-chair of Brainstorm Green since its launch in 2008, and, as I wrote the other day, I’ve felt uncomfortable at times when the tone of the event becomes too celebratory, given the scale of the environmental problems we face. Having said that, today I want to showcase a few business executives who are emerging as sustainability leaders.

One is Dan Akerson of GM, the stodgiest and most bureaucratic of the US automakers. A newcomer to Detroit–he is a Naval Academy graduate who made a fortune in private equity at Carlyle, before taking over at GM in 2010–Akerson that his predecessors had been “part of the problem, rather than the solution” when they stood in the way of  regulators who wanted to raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and he said the auto industry had been slow to recognize the threat of climate change. Hours after he spoke at Brainstorm Green, GM became the biggest company and the first automaker to endorse the climate declaration from CERES and its BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy) coalition.

At our conference, Akerson delivered a spirited defense of the plug-in electric Volt, which has racked up disappointing sales, largely because it is expensive–about $39,000 before a $7500 federal tax credit. Even so, he said:  “We’re losing money on every one of them.” GM hopes to remedy that with the next generation Volt which, he said, should cost $7000 to $10000 less and become profitable. A nifty trick if GM can pull it off.

The good news is that Volt owners, Akerson among them, love the car. He said:

…It’s been incredibly well received.  To give you an idea, in a Consumer Report two years running in a row, you know they ask for your rank at 5 for great, 4 for good, three average, down the line.  They’ve never had a car; they’ve never had a product that’s ranked 92 percent either a four or a five.  No threes, and all these tens of thousands of customers, no twos, no ones.”


The plain-talking Akerson had lots more to say–about cars powered by natural gas, about an upcoming Cadillac EV,  about the new energy-efficient Chevy Cruze. Here’s a transcript of his remarks.

Coca Cola's Bea Perez and Dean Kamen
Coca Cola’s Bea Perez and Dean Kamen

Why would Coca-Cola distribute thousands of water purification machines, known as the Slingshot, to poor countries in Africa and Latin America? Bea Perez, the chief sustainability officer of Coca-Cola, put it simply: “Water is the single most important issue that we face around the world.”

Coca-Cola wants to grow, the growth will come in the developing world, and, as Bea explained, the company has to

make sure that before we even open up a new operation that we’re mindful of what’s happening in that community and that we’re putting in the water infrastructure, helping to replenish those communities, and bring them access to fresh, clean drinking water first.  Then, down the road we can have a viable business.

Kamen, best know for inventing the Segway, has worked for more than a decade on the Slingshot. (The name derives from the Biblical legend of David and Goliath, in whichDavid felled Goliath with a slingshot. Water-borne diseases are the Goliath. I’m not sure whether Kamen or Coca-Cola are David.) The machine can produce roughly 30 liters of water an hour using no more energy than that required by hair dryer, Kamen explained, and he brought it to Coca-Cola because, as he put it,

They’re not really a soft drink company.  That’s their sideline.  They are the world’s largest logistics footprint.  They bottle their product in 206 countries…If there’s one product you can buy anywhere it’s a Coke.

I mean 50 percent of all the hospital beds in the world have people in them, because of bad water.  So, Coke, you could become the world’s largest healthcare provider, just help me get these machines out.

Perez and Coke’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, agreed to give it a try. They tested the machines in Ghana, made some fixes, and now have committed to roll them out on what sounds like a modest scale, at least for now–to Mexico, Paraguay and South Africa. Working with the Inter-American Development Bank and Africare, Coca-Cola and Kamen hope to scale the project up, but details remain sketchy.

By the way, Bea and Dean Kamen were joined on stage by, who’s got a very cool and ambitious recycling project called Ekocycle underway with Coca Cola. is the founding member of the Black Eyed Peas, and auteur of the uplifting Obama campaign video Yes We Can (which feels so last century, but maybe that’s just me.) at Brainstorm Green at Brainstorm Green

It’s hard for a utility-company executive to get much attention at conference alongside the likes to, Harrison Ford and the CEOs of GM and P&G, but there was a lot of talk at Brainstorm Green about David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, largely because David always seems to be brimming with ideas.

In the courtyard of the Ritz Carlton, where the conference was held, NRG displayed its latest creation, a solar canopy, which is essentially a gazebo with solar panels on top. The company plans to sell the canopies to homeowners for their patios or pools and to businesses like supermarkets or restaurants that want to provide shade to their customers and electricity to themselves. “This is to get people thinking about the fact that there are options beyond rooftop solar,” Crane told Fortune’s Brian O’Keefe.

David Crane of NRG Energy
David Crane of NRG Energy

David told me about an early-stage project that NRG is working on with Dean Kamen (yes, he’s a busy guy) who has developed a portable Stirling engine that can turn a variety of fuels, including natural gas, into electricity. NRG hopes to deploy about 200 of these engines–they are quiet and don’t emit greenhouse gases–in homes, combining them  with rooftop solar, to see if they can provide a source of clean, reliable and affordable power independent of the electricity grid.

On a lively panel about energy with ex-DOE honcho Andy Karsner, Shell’s Marvin Odom and David Hawkins of NRDC, Crane made a forceful pitch for solar energy, saying studies show that it makes economic sense to put solar on the roofs of 50 million American homes. The costs of solar modules have dropped by nearly 90% in the last five years, he said, and although NRG owns some utility-scale solar plants, the big opportunity for solar is in distributed energy.

Meanwhile, Crane’s NRG has worked out a deal with Nest, Tony Fadell’s company that makes “learning thermostats,” to market the devices to its customers, and offer them rebates. Fadell’s talk about Nest was another highlight of Brainstorm Green.

Lastly, I want to say a quick word about Mountain Hazelnuts, a company that exemplifies the potential of business to deliver social and environmental value, and to make money for its owners. Mountain Hazelnuts is on its way to planting 10 million hazelnut trees in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, employing hundreds of Bhutanese in its processing facilities and providing a livelihood to as many as 15,000 farmers–a significant number in a country of about 800,000 people. Mountain Hazelnuts is the creation of an entrepreneur named Daniel Spitzer and his wife, Teresa Law; they were voted the best “Great Green Idea” at Brainstorm in 2012, and came back last week to update us on their progress. I hope to tell their story in more depth, before long.


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