Isabelle Kocher: “The potential of solar is enormous: twenty times the level of global energy consumption”
In an interview with Capital.fr on April 4 this year, ENGIE CEO Isabelle Kocher explains the Group’s strategic objectives to establish itself as the global leader of the energy transition. They include opting to focus on energy efficiency and the energy sources of the future, such as solar power, which now offers considerable potential.
Isabelle Kocher interview for Capital.fr (extracts)
Capital: What is your analysis of the falls in oil and gas prices?
Isabelle Kocher: What we are seeing is a complete redeal of the geopolitical cards. In the short term, that is putting the producing countries under pressure. In the longer term, they will have to cope with a structural revolution.
Solar power is becoming competitive – its price is now one-eighth of what it was five years ago – and now represents a viably exploitable energy asset for many countries, and especially African countries. The resource is twenty times the level of global energy consumption… and renewable by definition. For the first time ever, we are beginning to glimpse the opportunity of how to provide energy from nonpolluting resources to 1.5 billion human beings who currently have no access to it.
You are a major player in the gas market. So doesn’t that weaken your business?
One day, gas itself will become renewable in the form of green gas produced from the fermentation of agricultural waste, for example. We are determined to make these technologies economically accessible.
Right now, we’re in discussion with our leading suppliers to secure gas supplies at competitive rates against the current background of tumbling prices. Gas very definitely has a future, because it is the best ally of renewables. It provides the band of stability that energy systems need. It emits only half as much CO2 as coal when used to generate electricity.
What do you take away from COP21?
The outcome that is absolutely fundamental – more so than having reached an agreement and even more so than having a compliance system – is that global warming has become a real issue for everyone, from nation states to corporates and investors. As Victor Hugo famously said: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”.
What role does ENGIE intend to play?
Gérard Mestrallet played a very active role in COP21, and will continue to do so for COP22. We have also launched the Terrawatt initiative, which is a non-profit organization that is aiming to put in place the conditions required to ensure the provision of 1,000 gigawatts of solar power capacity worldwide by 2030; a project that requires the investment of 1,000 billion dollars. I have just taken over as its president. We will bring everyone together – from funding sources to energy companies and equipment manufacturers – in an open innovation environment to work out exactly how we can make that happen.
Major disposals are being talked about…
We are currently redesigning the Group. We intend to dispose quickly and massively of assets that are not central to the energy sources of tomorrow. We have strengthened our position in the solar market with the acquisition of Solairedirect. We are growing internationally in renewable energies and energy services by serving markets in 70 different countries.
We are transitioning from a business that manages large-scale power generating units to a new generation of more decentralized, digital and renewable resources at the very point of consumption. Two-thirds of our employees are now working to design precisely this type of solution (…).
You are investing in startups, so which innovations are you particularly interested in?
As I said, solar and wind power are now at the point of maturity, and we are developing them on an industrial scale. We now need to look forward to, and prepare for, the next stage. So we’ve created a €100 million investment fund to support tomorrow’s technologies.
In solar power, we are working on organic solutions: molecules vapor-deposited on all sorts of substrates, transforming windows and even car bodies into solar panels. In energy storage, hydrogen produced by hydrolysis is a promising process.
What is your official line on nuclear?
I think that the existing nuclear capacity will be extended whenever the independent safety authorities are satisfied that it is possible to do so. I would also remind you that we are one of the world’s leading providers of nuclear power plant maintenance.
The other side of that coin is that new developments will remain a niche market. The number of countries focusing massive investment on nuclear power – China, for example – are very few, and they don’t need us. In comparative terms, renewables are now cheaper, faster to develop and can be managed at a more local scale.
Gérard Mestrallet is staying on for two years. Doesn’t that rather undermine your position?
The reality is that he will become Chairman of the Board next month. It’s a solution that I have been lobbying in favor of for more than a year. Gérard Mestrallet has built this Group into a global leader. We’re now facing nothing less than a revolution in the world of energy, and my mission as the future CEO is to lead all our employees through the Group transition that will allow us to succeed in this challenge.
Read the full interview (in french only)