GE’s Immelt: Clean energy, economic progress can coexist

DENVER – General Electric chief executive Jeff Immelt doesn’t buy the notion that clean energy means expensive energy.

Clean energy and economic progress, he told the crowd at the third annual Colorado Innovation Network Summit on Tuesday, can be accomplished at the same time – with a few conditions.

“It requires businesses to innovate faster,” said Immelt, Tuesday’s keynote speaker at the COIN Summit. “It requires environmental groups to prescribe outcomes and open up to innovation and technology and not be so precious that they have to dictate every step. And it takes governments to have practical policies.”

As a company, Immelt said GE believes climate science is real but that economics are also critical. But innovation and doing things more efficiently and cleaner can save businesses like GE and its clients money in the long run. He said GE has invested more than $50 billion in clean energy innovation on things like turbine jet engines for Boeing’s Dreamliner that are 25 percent more fuel efficient than the ones they replaced in GE’s product line.

“It’s always possible – in fact it’s desirable – to solve big problems using innovation to create jobs and create impact at the same time,” Immelt said.

The COIN Summit was started two years ago to bring together leaders and discuss ways to move Colorado’s innovation economy forward.

Immelt said he sees big opportunities for Colorado in the energy industry, in creating jobs to serve both renewable energy as well as extracting shale natural gas productively and safely.

“These are pivot points for economic growth in a place like Colorado,” Immelt said.

Immelt said major themes for the nation’s economy moving forward will be simplifying business models, the Internet of things and advanced manufacturing. Manufacturing, he said, is more dynamic than he’s ever seen it during his career.

But one of the biggest drivers of innovation, he said, will also be the transition to natural gas as a major energy source because of its supply diversity, the economics of it and its low-carbon footprint.

Whole new industries and streams of innovation will come from the shift to gas, he said, things like water reuse in drilling for oil and gas, waterless hydraulic fracturing, flare gas monetization and diesel displacement in oil and gas production.

Immelt said innovation at a company the size of GE, which has about 300,000 employees worldwide, can be tough without focusing on some key points like valuing engineers and scientists, listening to customers and, particularly, being open to ideas from the outside.

On that last point, Immelt said GE is active in investing in startup companies and their technology if GE leaders believe it will help improve what the company is doing. Often those companies are suppliers to GE or companies GE believes it might want to acquire in the future.

Where companies often fail, he said, is in believing they have to do things their own way all the time.

“I don’t think any big company CEO thinks that they invent everything inside their company,” Immelt said. “You need to keep a wide open aperture to what’s going on in the world.”

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