A Conversation with RMI’s New CEO
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Jon Creyts is RMI’s new CEO, effective November 1. He has devoted his career to the clean energy transition, spending the past decade in critical leadership roles at RMI that advanced its mission in China, in climate technology, and in the formation of new businesses to speed and scale solutions to the climate crisis. We sat down with Creyts to ask him about some of the foremost energy issues of the day, and how he will address them in his new role. His responses were edited for space.
Q: First off, you are taking the helm at RMI when fossil fuels seem to be on the rebound thanks to the war in Ukraine, inflation is raising prices across the globe, and climate change is causing disasters the world over. There are a lot of headwinds that make this a tough job. Why did you want it now?
A: Fossil fuel use is peaking worldwide right now, and we can expect energy markets to be volatile over the next few years – especially as geopolitics and markets come to terms with the imminent decline. We can and must leave fossil fuels in our rearview mirror by 2050. We have clean energy options available today that are more affordable, secure, and resilient than any of their fossil counterparts. Where we don’t yet have solutions, we have enormous innovation potential that is rapidly developing new markets and technologies. We can free everyone globally from a dependence on petrostates and cartels, democratize energy access, and create more jobs in our shift to clean energy.
Who will oppose moving to a better world that simultaneously solves energy security, energy access, air pollution, and climate change? Only those who don’t understand the facts or can’t profit in the transition. RMI’s work ensures that all know what’s at stake, where the prizes are, and how to participate profitably and equitably in creating our common zero-carbon future. It’s an exciting moment to champion these crucial changes in the world.
Q: You know two of your predecessors – Amory Lovins and Jules Kortenhorst – very well. How will you be a different CEO? What has prepared you most for this role?
A: RMI has been blessed with visionary leadership. Amory’s insight, technical brilliance, and dogged persistence are beyond compare. Jules brought fearlessness, urgency, and a pragmatic approach to scaling success that truly globalized RMI’s reach and impact. My goal will be to combine what I have learned from both leaders and add my own collaborative instinct and brand of creative problem solving to help RMI work alongside our growing group of partners to scale solutions to the planetary crisis.
As a recovering management consultant and a reformed engineer, I understand the techno-economics of the transition and how to mobilize business to rebuild a climate-aligned global economy. My decade at RMI has helped me understand the catalytic role that an entrepreneurial nonprofit can have when we apply ourselves to tough systemic issues alongside governments, businesses, communities, and other NGO partners. Under my leadership, RMI will work to extend its lineage of bold innovation, humble partnership, and applied hope into the next phase of the energy transition.
Q: You began your career in the energy and sustainability space in 2000, when you joined McKinsey & Company, so you’ve been at this a long time. What called you to this profession? What has personally motivated and inspired you to be in it in various capacities for more than two decades?
A: I feel a strong personal and moral obligation to apply my skills and ensure we leave the planet in a better state than how we found it. Mine is the first generation to understand the full implications of climate change, and the last that can do anything to stop it. What drives me is rising to this challenge. What inspires me is those that do, which is why RMI is so dear to me. RMI has been a source of personal inspiration to me for more than 30 years, and for others even longer. It is a tradition I am eager to sustain.
Q: What accomplishments you are most proud of, that you believe made the biggest shift in the energy transition?
A: I have been lucky to be part of many amazing teams that have done extraordinary things, but several moments stand out. When I was at McKinsey, I led a team focused on mapping greenhouse gas abatement opportunities in the U.S. alongside leading corporations. The map we produced became one of the first iterations of the iconic “McKinsey cost-curve,” which was immediately latched on to by policymakers and corporate leaders to help frame transition opportunities and approaches.
When I joined RMI, China was building three coal plants a week and there simply was not a way to solve climate change without China altering course. Together with partners Energy Foundation and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, RMI worked with the most senior energy leaders in China to develop an alternative energy roadmap that would support climate and cut air pollution while stimulating further economic growth. The final analysis and recommendations were embraced wholeheartedly and helped inform not only subsequent international negotiations, but also China’s 13th Five Year Plan.
These were both important successes, but I can say without a doubt my proudest accomplishment has been helping set the strategy and assembling the team of over 600 at RMI that are every day achieving jaw-dropping progress on the energy transition. From rolling out resilient, renewable microgrid systems in the Caribbean and Africa to re-engineering climate-aligned global industries alongside leading banks and corporations; from engaging at the highest level with leaders in China, India, the U.S., or Indonesia helping build sweeping and ambitious plans; to working at the community level to retire fossil assets and ensure a just transition. RMI has developed a set of capabilities to speed our collective progress that is unique, impactful, and inclusive.
Q: You founded RMI’s China Program in 2012 and helped develop a road map that supported the commitments the country made as part of the Paris Agreement. What are RMI’s goals for China now?
A: Our initial work in China focused on how to slow, stop, and reverse the growth of fossil energy use while supporting the continued economic growth of the country. This “decoupling” of growth from carbon was about finding the fastest economic pathway to peak emissions. We continue to support the practical delivery of this objective, including things like how to increase renewables on the grid or expand the amount of carbon-free transportation available for both goods and people. But increasingly, our attention has turned to how China can achieve carbon neutrality even faster than its current 2060 goal. This means getting more critical infrastructure in place sooner and includes innovations like how to rapidly develop a hydrogen economy to support the production of green steel and green cement; how to build integrated zero-carbon districts that combine buildings, transportation, and other infrastructure in elegant and efficient ways; and how to manage rural decarbonization to ensure no one is left behind in the transition.
Q: You pioneered RMI’s “market affiliate” strategy, which is about seeding and spinning out new organizations. Why is this such an important part of RMI’s strategy and essential to advancing solutions for climate change?
A: One of the great qualities of RMI is the entrepreneurial energy we apply to solving complex climate problems. Sometimes the right way to make headway is to help an ecosystem of companies, policymakers, and/or non-governmental organizations work together differently in the market. Sometimes the best approach is creating an innovative market participant that operates differently, achieving conspicuous success and generating immediate followers. We build solutions that fall into each of these categories, with a host of permutations in between. Successful efforts grow quickly and need space and fit-for-purpose governance to maintain focus and scalability. Where this is the case, we spin out the entity to ensure it continues to grow its impact rapidly.
Examples include our Business Renewables Center (now Clean Energy Buyer’s Alliance) to support corporate purchases of renewable energy, Energy Web Foundation to pioneer digital solutions for a decentralized grid, Mission Possible Partnership to decarbonize global hard-to-abate sectors, WattTime to build consumer choice and open-source emissions data into decision making, and Black Bear Energy to help large real estate owners quickly monetize clean energy in their portfolios. In each case, RMI develops a symbiotic relationship with the spin-out, nurturing its growth and development while benefiting from the insights generated from the spin-out’s different market vantage. Operating alongside RMI, these entities become a powerful mission-driven collective that amplify impact through ongoing coordination.
Q: RMI is in the midst of evolution of sorts, growing from a small think tank staffed by around 50 to a global, independent nonprofit of over 600 in the last decade. As its new CEO, how do you think the organization will continue to change and adapt to address this crisis?
A: The frontiers of tackling climate change are constantly shifting, and RMI’s strength is going where the problems are newest and toughest, working with others to help create a pathway that is easy to follow. We have big challenges to solve. How do we recreate our world’s energy infrastructure in three decades? Where do we find the $3-5 trillion per year to do it, and how do we make sure that all countries and communities benefit from this transition? Given our perilous predicament, it is clear all solutions need to be on the table, even as we work to add new ones rapidly.
At the same time, it is also clear that our work must extend beyond mitigation to include adaptation, ensuring that the escalating damage and dislocation – especially among those communities that can least afford it – is addressed head-on, too. Through it all, RMI will continue to build and support solutions that leverage our market-based approaches. With expanding capabilities in policy, technology, finance, data, leadership development, and communications alongside our increasing global reach, we are ready to focus a larger cross-section of the institute on solving the biggest and most complex climate problems, faster than ever before.