- Elisabeth Brinton, a utility-industry alum, helms oil major Shell’s new energies division.
- She’s a key figure behind Shell’s commitment to becoming a net-zero company by 2050.
- Known by her peers as a visionary, Brinton says she will take an approach grounded in data and centered on customers to get there.
- Her vision for change within the slow-moving utility sector was met with tension in some of her prior roles.
- Brinton was selected as one of Business Insider’s 100 people transforming business.
- For more stories like this, sign up here for our weekly energy newsletter
Elisabeth Brinton doesn’t seem to have trouble reconciling her love for nature — shaped by an upbringing in the Pacific Northwest — with a top job at Royal Dutch Shell, the third-largest oil company in the West.
Perhaps that’s because, in her role overseeing the firm’s clean-energy business, she has an opportunity to push a large producer of fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change, to cleaner forms of energy.
Brinton stepped into the role as executive vice president of new energies at Shell in April. She joined the company a year and a half earlier as global VP of strategy and portfolio in the same department.
Through new energies, Brinton, who has worked at energy producers for more than a decade, runs a division that spends up to $2 billion a year on lower-carbon power sources, such as solar and biofuels.
She is also a key figure responsible for Shell’s goal of becoming a net-zero emissions company by 2050, meaning it will produce no more greenhouse gas emissions than it captures.
“I’ve never believed in a single bottom line,” Brinton said via video chat from her traditional Dutch-style home in The Hague, where Shell is headquartered.
A triple major in college and practicing Christian, Brinton pegs much of her success on being a systems thinker who is able to focus on multiple objectives at the same time — “loving people,” “loving the planet,” and making commercial products, she said.
A decade ago, those objectives might have been at odds with a role at a major oil company. But Brinton says her personal values align with those at Shell.
‘This type of change work is not for everyone’
When Brinton stepped into her new role, the industry’s largest players, under pressure from shareholders, had already started making big commitments to decarbonize and invest more in clean energy.
In April, Shell became the largest global energy company to commit to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. In a move towards that goal, the company has launched an internal review of its global operations called Project Reshape, which could cut costs by as much as 40% in its oil production division, according to Reuters.
“We are undergoing a strategic review of the organization, which intends to ensure we are set up to thrive throughout the energy transition and be a simpler organization, which is also cost competitive,” Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesperson, said in a statement to Business Insider.
That doesn’t mean Brinton won’t face obstacles as she challenges the sector’s status quo.
During her tenure in the utility sector, where she held similar roles at PG&E and AGL Energy, Brinton sometimes faced headwinds while trying to bring companies into a lower-carbon future, former colleagues said.
Shell, however, is known for being one of the most forward-thinking major oil firms. Plus, Brinton has a near-irrepressible optimism and tenacity that make her suited for the job, according to five current and former colleagues who spoke to Business Insider.
“This type of change work is not for everyone,” Brinton said. “But it is so, so worth it because strong and healthy corporations are essential actors for meaningful change in society.”
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A career grounded in the technology of the future
Brinton grew up in Seattle, where she spent much of her free time outside, hiking and horseback riding — activities that still often occupy her weekends today, she says. (In fact, she owns a horse named Celebration that qualified with its rider for the 2020 Olympics). She attended the Christian Science school Principia College, in Illinois, where she studied chemistry, English, and physics.
Speaking over a video call, with one of Shell’s wind turbines set as her background image, Brinton is upbeat and polished, traits that have undoubtedly served her well through more than a decade in client-facing roles.
After running her own product development and marketing agency in the years after college, Brinton joined the founding team at the web-infrastructure provider Opsware (then known as LoudCloud) in 1999. The startup was cofounded by Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley’s most influential investors.
As an early provider of software as a service, Opsware was way ahead of its time — a place where Brinton, the company’s global marketing director, likes to be.
“We were defining business models,” she said. “The cloud is ubiquitous today. We defined the term.”
It was also at Andreessen’s startup that Brinton had a brush with the energy industry. The company was digitizing servers, and “all of a sudden, electricity demand was a really big deal,” she said.
A self-described systems thinker, she saw the connection between tech and energy and climate. The link would go on to shape the next two decades of her career.
The challenge of getting ancient energy companies to change
If startups try to move fast and break things, utilities move slowly and try to break nothing (lest it cause a blackout).
But under pressure from investors and advocates, electric utilities have been forced to transform their businesses and adapt to a future where more and cleaner energy sources are being plugged into the grid, from electric cars to rooftop solar panels.
They’ve brought on people like Brinton to help.
Years after leaving Opsware, which was bought by HP in 2007, she joined the California utility PG&E as its corporate strategy officer. PG&E, one of the largest utilities in the US, has since become infamous for its role in sparking deadly wildfires in California.
Like during her time in tech, she looked towards the future at PG&E — in this case, what the grid might look like in 10 or 20 years.
“She helped create a vision,” said Suna Taymaz, Brinton’s first employee at PG&E, who now consults in the energy, smart-home, and transportation sectors. “The grid had so many potential challenges — solar, renewables. How do we integrate these things?”
Brinton has a knack for helping big corporations pivot to new opportunities, Taymaz said.
But they have to be willing to change.
PG&E was not fully behind her vision at the time, which placed safety at its center, according to Brinton, and that’s ultimately why she left in 2016. PG&E declined to comment.
Brinton faced similar tensions at the Australian utility AGL Energy. There, she was an executive in the company’s now-defunct new energy division, in charge of exploring and incubating new energy products and services.
She was a powerful agent of change who helped modernize AGL, according to Luisa Hall, who worked under Brinton at the utility, and another former coworker and current AGL employee who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media. Business Insider has verified the person’s identity.
At AGL, Brinton pioneered Australia’s first virtual power plant — a network of 1,000 batteries that can send energy to the grid. She also helped build AGL’s first electric-vehicle subscription service, similar to a car-rental service, which was announced earlier this month.
Brinton says she had the board’s support to execute her vision and that she accomplished important work at AGL.
However, she faced challenges working with AGL’s CEO at the time, Andy Vesey, according to the former coworker, who was familiar with the matter. Brinton was pushed out and the new energy division was closed, though much of the work lived on, the employee said. Brinton didn’t respond to an emailed followup question about working with Vesey.
Vesey denied that he and Brinton butted heads. He didn’t comment on whether he supported her vision.
“I can say that there was no ‘clash,'” Vesey said in a message. He left AGL in 2018 and later joined PG&E as its president and CEO. “AGL pursued a vision for innovation that emerged from our Corporate Strategy group that was approved by our Board of Directors.”
AGL Energy declined to comment.
“The good work that I accomplished with my teams lives on and has and is continuing to deliver value,” Brinton said via email. “I contributed to making it a stronger and better company and helped advance the energy transition for Australia, which opened the door for Shell.”
Though Brinton didn’t address her relationship with Vesey directly, she appears to have learned from her previous roles. When we asked her about driving change within large and old companies, she said sometimes people with strong convictions need to sacrifice their careers for their beliefs.
“You cannot get caught up into succession politics, but rather you have to keep prioritizing doing the right thing first, and being transparent, which may mean sacrificing your own career within that company (not the goal, but it can happen),” she said via email.
Brinton helps Shell become the largest energy company to commit to net-zero
While older than many utilities, Shell is known for taking risks and betting big on futuristic tech.
Shell is among the biggest backers of hydrogen, for example, becoming the first branded fuel retailer to sell the gas at a station in 2017, and it’s one of the most active venture funders of clean-tech startups.
Brinton says she was drawn to Shell for its commitment to integrity, its customer-first approach, and its focus on data and science. It’s also clear that the opportunity for her is massive.
Shell is a $100 billion company and one of the most recognizable and valuable brands in the world. Her job is also at the center of the company’s plan to stay relevant in a world less reliant on oil and gas.
Still, most details of what Brinton will do in her role remains to be seen — as do any headwinds she may face.
She says her approach is to start with the customer and work backward. There’s not one type of low-carbon power or service that has blanket superiority; it depends on the customer. In a dense urban area, for example, offshore wind is often more appealing than solar.
Big companies can often have trouble taking the energy transition seriously enough, Hall said. That’s all the more reason to have someone like Brinton in the role, she said.
“She’s the kind of person that can get people to take it seriously, and can really drive that forward,” Hall said. “Getting those large companies to decarbonize is one — if not the only — path towards a sustainable future. The fact that Elisabeth is doing that work is crucial.”