Cleco’s Robbie LaBorde outlines the company’s future, while also reflecting on the past

The Chief Operations and Sustainability Officer shares Cleco’s vision through a shifting political, economic, and atmospheric climate
Robbie LaBorde, Chief Operations and Sustainability Officer of Cleco Corp. Holdings, parent...
Robbie LaBorde, Chief Operations and Sustainability Officer of Cleco Corp. Holdings, parent company of Cleco Power, met with KALB at the company’s headquarters in Pineville, Louisiana on March 11, 2022.(Loren Ryland / KALB)
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 1:30 PM CDT
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Pineville, La. (KALB) - Let’s face it, there is a lot of noise surrounding “sustainability” or “green” as buzzwords in 2022. This era of “eco-everything” may seem like a flash in the pan.

But for a company like Cleco Power, which, for nearly one hundred years, has been operating in the public utilities space (and subject to state and federal environmental standards that most of us have never even heard of), leading with a strategy of environmental stewardship and long-term stability is nothing new.

In fact, according to Chief Operations and Sustainability Officer Robbie LaBorde, Cleco has maintained a “stellar compliance record” since before he joined the company 31 years ago working as an environmental specialist. He’s held many positions within the organization since then, but after hearing his quips about Cleco’s “minute-by-minute emissions monitoring since 1995,” it’s safe to say he knows his stuff.

KALB sat down with LaBorde to learn about the company’s iterations which have ultimately ensured its survival.

An Ode to the Past

As a native of Bunkie, Louisiana, LaBorde is proud to tell the history of Cleco’s origin in his hometown dating back to 1935, where it initially operated as an ice production and distribution company. He explained that it was a pivotal time of advancement in American home life, and being able to safely refrigerate meat, milk, and other products literally changed peoples’ lives.

The founders of the company began to realize that in addition to their principal product, there was a growing market for the by-product of producing ice, “something called electricity,” as LaBorde tells it, and they had to make a critical decision in the firm’s history.

One thing was clear: the demand for electricity wasn’t going away.

“So, we took our company, a dang good ice company, and completely changed our product to birth this whole electric grid,” said LaBorde.

That electric grid would go on to serve over 290,000 customers in Louisiana in 2022, an impact that the founders could hardly have anticipated, but one that has been key to the quality of life of the state’s residents.

There’s Nothing Like the Present

Flash forward to today. Electricity is the backbone of modern civilization; it goes without saying that nearly everything about American life has changed.

The environmental impact of electrical power generation, distribution, and consumption has become a focus for concerned climate advocates. As a part of this, the Biden administration decided to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which commits the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Louisiana has managed, for better or worse, to hold onto some of the old ways of doing things, but the global push for emissions reductions may outweigh some residents’ collective mindset.

“If you’re asking if we know that change is coming and whether the Cleco leadership team is ready to embrace that, I will tell you, unequivocally, yes,” said LaBorde. “Our vision is to be the leading clean energy company in Louisiana. That doesn’t mean we’re flipping a switch, but we’ve chosen to build a sustainability strategy to complement our business strategy. And now, believe it or not, the sustainability strategy is what’s driving our business operations.”

Development of the strategy wasn’t a fly by night operation, nor was it created solely by executive leadership.

Spearheaded by Cleco’s Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance, Maile Murray, the company conducted an in-depth Materiality Assessment, in other words, “a study to learn what all of your internal and external stakeholders think is important,” as explained by LaBorde.

Based on the outcome of the study, the team created four essential pillars to underpin Cleco’s Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) strategy.

The first chosen pillar was the reduction of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. After thorough analysis, Cleco leadership has set a highly ambitious carbon reduction goal of 60 percent of CO2 emissions by 2030.

“There is no single issue in our time that is more impactful to our business than decarbonization, which is a complex term for some,” he continued. “It’s got risks and opportunities, but for us, we see way more opportunities than risks.”

“Thinking about that goal, it’s a tall order, but we have a path and a plan to get there,” LaBorde asserted. “I really believe that we do. We have a suite of assets that are fossil in nature; we have to prepare a glide path, a transition, to phase them out. As a society, we can’t flip a switch, as we’re seeing unfold right now in the Ukraine, but thinking about a glide path is the most appropriate way to go about it.”

Since our interview in March 2022, Cleco Power announced a major carbon reduction project, Project Diamond Vault. Synthesizing public and private funding, the company is looking to make unprecedented investments (a total of $900 million, to be exact) in carbon capture and sequestration technologies at Cleco Power’s Brame Energy Center near Boyce. The project is set to reduce emissions from the company’s largest generating unit, Madison Unit 3, by 95 percent.

Continuing the pursuit of fossil fuels, even utilizing carbon capture and sequestration technologies, comes with pros and cons, something Cleco’s leadership team is clearly evaluating on a continuous basis.

The company has also committed to reducing several other categories of its environmental impact, the details of which can be found on their website.

The second pillar is maintaining the affordability and reliability of produced energy for their customers.

When trying to incorporate renewables into the equation, the company remains fully committed to affordability. In fact, Cleco Power’s government-regulated commission states that it must maintain fair and reasonable rates for Cleco customers.

“The good thing is, with the improved technology, we no longer must sacrifice one for the other. By including solar in our generation mix, we can reduce our overall fleet generation costs,” LaBorde said.

It’s no coincidence that solar panels are making their way into the mainstream. Significant solar technological advancements “came like a freight train,” according to LaBorde, and the costs of solar panels plummeted over 70 percent from 2010 to 2019.

Solar isn’t the only renewable energy avenue that the leadership team has explored. Based exclusively in Louisiana, however, there isn’t enough inland wind speeds for wind-generated power to be feasible.

They also conducted an in-depth analysis of the potential for biomass-generated power, but LaBorde explained that biomass as a fuel is still somewhat cost-prohibitive in 2022.

“Maybe in 10 years,” he said.

But Cleco will only pursue options that keep their product affordable for their customers, “especially when thinking of low-income residents in our service territory,” said LaBorde.

“All of that analysis presented the fact that solar power seems to be the option that is coming to the forefront for the southeastern U.S. and for Cleco, specifically,” LaBorde affirmed, again alluding to the company’s long-term glide path of incorporating renewable energy sources.

LaBorde continued that the third equally vital pillar is supporting Cleco’s surrounding community.

“The company is inextricably linked to our community. When they grow, we grow. That has always been the case, all the way from our beginnings in Bunkie,” LaBorde said. “We have to keep that in mind in everything we do, whether it’s volunteering, providing economic opportunities; anything we can do to help them to grow.”

When it comes to investing in the community, the leadership team is thinking outside of the box. Just last year, the company committed 20 percent of the funds needed to implement the Alexandria/Pineville Bicycle-Pedestrian Plan, with 80 percent provided by the federal government.

The company’s final pillar is its commitment to developing and maintaining a viable workforce. They promote the welfare of their workforce by prioritizing employee safety, employee satisfaction, and inclusion and diversity (I&D), rather than the ubiquitous D&I.

“Our President and CEO, Bill Fontenot, places ‘inclusion’ first in the acronym because inclusion drives diversity; it drives everything. If you can accomplish the inclusion piece, everything else falls into place,” LaBorde said.

When it comes to the energy transition, however, leadership has had to navigate significant workforce challenges, including the closure of the Dolet Hills coal-fired plant, co-owned with SWEPCO. The plant was their largest solid fuel generating unit, operating seasonally with more than 100 direct employees and in tandem with a SWEPCO-owned lignite mine.

According to LaBorde, the company had been preparing for the closure since 2019, and “the cost of lignite had gotten to the point that we had no choice; we had to do something.”

“That was one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do in my career,” LaBorde said. He continued that the company did what it could to manage that transition as well. Upon the plants’ closure, roughly one third of the workforce retired, one third was relocated into different roles within the company, and one third went on to work elsewhere.

“I think we handled it the absolute best we could,” he said.

Into the Great Unknown

It’s clear that these environmental, social, and governance (ESG) pillars are launching the company into the future, despite the clear uncertainty that presides over all of us in 2022.

True to Louisiana’s status as the Deep South’s melting pot, the local community’s views about the right way forward, especially regarding environmental issues and the threat of climate change, come in every shape and color.

When asked if leadership sometimes experienced resistance to Cleco Power’s bold decarbonization initiatives, LaBorde acknowledged that this aspect of his job requires skillful discernment.

LaBorde explained that the leadership team members’ individual beliefs about the urgency of climate action are immaterial. As pioneers of the company’s path, they must balance the expectations of the company’s owners, customers, communities, lenders, insurers, and regulators, all of which are requiring bold climate goals.

“To support present and future generations,” LaBorde said, “the push for a decarbonized planet is changing our business and forcing an energy transition like we’ve never seen before.”

Special thanks to Robbie LaBorde and Fran Phoenix, Cleco’s Corporate Communications Strategist, for their time and hospitality.

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