Gil Jenkins on his role as Director of Communications at Hannon Armstrong, the value of investing in the right side of climate change, and how consumers are leading the charge toward a clean energy future.
You have extensive PR and communications experience on agency and client sides. What led you to specialize in clean energy?
I’ve always had a deep reverence for nature and that certainly informed my passion for environmental issues and a related fascination with clean and renewable energy technologies.
Where I think it really started to click for me as a potential communications specialty was during my time in San Francisco around ten years ago. I saw some interesting things starting to emerge in the cleantech venture capitalist space that were clearly related to a growing public consciousness on climate change.
Having been a communications generalist to date, I felt there was a unique opportunity to bring brand expertise in marketing, B2B communications, and corporate reputation to green energy startups. On a parallel track, I started to see some of the large consumer brands looking to incorporate sustainability into their product marketing and PR. For me, that led to some interesting opportunities with a few different Detroit automakers that were launching new electric vehicles at the time. That transformative experience of selling the idea of EVs has been useful as I’ve branched out to other clean energy products and companies.
How has the industry’s marketing and communications approach changed in recent years?
I think you’re really starting to see mainstream consumer brands embrace the use of clean energy and sustainable materials. You have Budweiser advertising 100% renewable electricity—they’re putting it right on the can and buying a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad to support the roll-out. Tide detergent’s bio-based laundry detergent powered by wind energy is another good example of this marketing shift in mainstream brands. Perhaps this should come as no surprise because all the polling tells us that most Americans (particularly millennials under 35) want to address climate change and support brands that focus on our clean energy future. It’s a huge block of consumers voting with their wallets and the industry is responding to that.
Can you talk about your role as Director of Communications at Hannon Armstrong ?
We are an investor in climate change solutions—and proud to be the first public company exclusively focused on those kinds of investments. Today that means projects that make buildings more energy efficient, and wind and solar plants that power American homes and businesses with carbon-free electricity.
Now and in the future, it also means funding water systems and other sustainable infrastructure projects that make communities more resilient to extreme-weather events that are becoming all too commonplace.
My role at Hannon Armstrong is focused on telling that story, shaping our brand and driving our reputation. Climate change is the existential threat of our lifetime, and we are trying to harness finance to turn the tide in this battle. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s also quite profitable.
In other words, we are showing that you can make better risk-adjusted returns by investing on the right side of the climate change line. Since we went public in 2013, we’ve had a 230% total shareholder return, more than two times the S&P 500. It’s rare for a financial services brand to have such a clear-eyed mission that benefits society combined with an equally strong track record of execution.
I see this role as the culmination of work I had done previously for cleantech, and corporate sustainability and environmental policy clients at Ogilvy, with elements of the work I did recently for the American Council on Renewable Energy.
How can the industry take advantage of the shift in public opinion on climate change and counter some of the opposing narratives that still exist?
The polling on both sides of the aisle indicates a desire to prioritize wind and solar renewable energy over all other energy sources. I’ve been heartened by the changes in the last two to three years. For example, an idea like 100% clean energy was considered a radical notion just a few years ago. Now, the fifth largest economy in the world, the state of California, has committed to 100% clean electricity by 2045. Consumers are driving that shift, and businesses and local and state governments are responding with policies that will help.
In the business community, we need to present a unified front to keep the momentum going on climate action—particularly on Federal policy. Last month, Hannon Armstrong and 74 other companies, including Nike, J&J, Pepsi, Mars, and others came together to lobby Congress for a carbon pricing solution. For far too long fossil fuel companies have socialized the cost of their pollution—while privatizing all the profits.
In your second year as a judge, what do you hope to see from submissions this time around?
To use the Company of the Year category as an example—I’d like to see a company that is truly disruptive. They should have a well-articulated problem statement with all the relevant proof points describing how they provide a successful clean energy/technology solution. Companies that are looking to make a big impact on carbon reduction by shaking up legacy industries will get extra points in my book.
What have you been reading or listening to that’s got your attention at the moment?
The moon landing was 50 years ago next month, so I’ve been enjoying all the great content coming out to mark that occasion. In particular, I love the new podcast from the BBC called Thirteen Minutes to the Moon and I am reading a book on it as well, American Moonshot. The podcast breaks down various stages of the endeavor, starting with Kennedy’s speech at Rice University. It’s a beautiful story of Americans of all kinds coming together and succeeding on a seemingly impossible goal.