Interview with Gérard Mestrallet in La Croix (extract)

 

Gérard Mestrallet: “For $50 bn, we can provide access to energy for all”

La Croix. When debating climate change, problems with equal access to energy are rarely mentioned…

Gérard Mestrallet. Climate change and access to energy are two closely linked issues. A significant part of solutions designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are based on the development of renewable energy, which make up the vast majority of solutions providing energy for all.

There are currently 1.3bn people without access to electricity, some 20% of the world’s population, a figure which has not fallen in the past 20 years. As COP21 begins, it’s up to us to make sure this issue is included in the debate.

 

Do you now think that it’s possible?

Solutions cost far less now thanks to new electricity production technology. We used to build major infrastructure and vast transport networks to carry electricity to the most isolated communities at a cost of hundreds of billions. With modern solutions, and solar power in particular, we can set up decentralized, or even independent, systems.

Are companies like yours, built upon these huge networks, able to meet these new challenges?

We were among the first to mention these changes and to begin preparing for them. At ENGIE, for example, we founded Rassembleurs d’Energies that has already provided support and funding to over 15 innovative social entrepreneurs. It works like an investment fund, providing significant leverage. We become shareholders, which enables the social entrepreneurs to find credit and attract other funding partners.

Thus, some entrepreneurs have developed systems with a solar panel, a battery, a light, and a socket for mobile phones which come in at a very low cost: around $50-100. Taking into account that around 500m families are without electricity, this could mean that for $50bn (€46bn), we can provide access to energy for all, covering their basic, but essential, needs. Lighting, for example, provides access to culture, enabling children to read and study at night. If rolled out over several years, and shared by the whole international community, the financial cost becomes manageable. (…)

 

You have just created an Africa Division as part of ENGIE’s restructuring. Is this a signal that the continent is now seen as an area for growth?

Yes. We already have a strong presence in Africa: gas in Algeria, as Morocco’s leading private electricity provider with the largest wind farm in Africa, and in South Africa where we are building a thermal power plant and concentrated solar power plant. We will soon be opening a wind farm. In Cameroon, we are looking at building a liquefaction plant.

 

Coal remains an abundant source of energy, one that is cheap and a major employer in the countries where it is mined. What can be done about this?

It takes time. Coal currently provides 40% of energy production worldwide, 60% in China and India, and a lot of power plants are being built. For ENGIE, coal represents less than 15% of our electricity production and we have decided to curtail any further investment in the sector.

But we can’t close every coal power plant around the world overnight. It will be done gradually and with solutions in place to pick up the workload, like gas and renewables. (…)

 

Interview by Jean-Claude Bourbon