Isabelle Kocher: “A world with 100% renewable energy is possible… but not yet”
As the COP22 gets underway in Marrakech, Isabelle Kocher discusses the ENGIE Group’s strategy in the French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche. She explains how the energy revolution requires the development of renewable energies and digital technologies. Solar energy and energy storage play a central part.
Interview with Isabelle Kocher for Le Journal du Dimanche by Bruna Basini and Guillaume Rebire.
You are taking part in COP22 – what are you expecting from it?
The Paris COP21 was spectacular in terms of convergence and raising awareness. It acknowledged that global warming had become a worldwide challenge and that it was urgent to take action. The Marrakech conference will take concrete measures. As of COP21, Engie mobilized on solar power by launching the Terrawatt initiative with industrial and financial players. We want to take action against potential obstacles to solar power development, particularly in terms of funding. Working with governments, we want to define universal rules, e.g., a standard contract for developing solar farm projects.
Why does solar power seem so important to you?
It is an almost limitless resource, with zero CO2 emissions, which is capable of covering the planet’s current electricity needs twenty times over. It is present in practically every country and can be exploited on both large and small scales. The new generation of solar panels – transparent, “invisible” film for sticking on buildings, for instance – will be more efficient. Above all, solar power could be made available to two billion people who are deprived of access to energy and therefore of growth. There is a huge objective for all players: to generate 2.5 terawatts in 2030, or the equivalent of 2,500 nuclear reactors. Solar energy is not sufficient on its own – we will have to combine it with other renewables, natural gas and hydrogen.
Will it be possible to have a world with 100% renewable energy?
It is possible but not immediately. Progress is required on storage technologies, at the heart of the issue. We are seeing some progress on batteries and their price is falling sharply. There are also storage solutions using hydrogen, which will be perfected within five to ten years. Lastly, natural gas, which will be more and more renewable, provides a cushion of continuity when there is no sun or wind. It is essential that these new generations of emerging technologies are here to stay. To ensure this, we need investment funds to support their growth.
ENGIE wants to be the global leader in the energy revolution. What are you doing to achieve this goal?
Everyone is talking about the energy transition. But at Engie, we are actually making that transition. We are leading the revolution in three major areas. Firstly, by disposing of activities that are not involved in this approach – worth 15 billion euros – by 2018: this is the case with coal and with oil exploration. At the same time, we are going to invest 22 billion euros in renewables and services: investments in solar, wind and hydro power. In France, over the next five years, this means increasing our installed solar base fourfold and doubling our installed wind base. And we’d love to have growth in hydropower if the French government was to reopen EDF’s historical concessions. We have also changed the group’s entire organization by going from a business-oriented structure to a model based on regions, in order to be more aligned with the global energy market. Lastly, we want to provide distributed solutions for generating electricity.
Are you going to become the Google of home-produced energy?
By 2050, 50% of the energy consumed in the world could be produced in a distributed way, on your roof, for instance, along with an efficient energy storage and management system. Today we also have competitors coming from the digital world, the “GAFA” group. Google is already collecting data with its subsidiary Nest (its Learning Thermostat). Engie wants to be able to install whatever technology it wishes without having to depend on Google. Over six months we have already made agreements with five of the best global players in the digital world for controlling a comprehensive services platform.
You decided to shut down a coal-fired mega-plant in Australia: do you have a “zero carbon” objective?
At the start of the year, coal represented 15% of our energy mix. We are already down to 10%. We have sold off or shut down a third of our power plants: we choose one option or the other depending on various financial parameters. But we won’t reach “zero carbon” overnight. There are complicated decisions to take: for instance, what reply should we give to Indonesian leaders who are asking us not to shut down their coal-fired plants as they have no alternative solution for the country’s inhabitants?
With the price drop in natural gas, oil and renewables, together with competition from alternative operators who are slashing prices, is this the end of expensive energy?
The French market is not the epitome of competition. Engie has three million individual customers, representing a market share of only 10%. We hope to win over a million more with a new range of offers that we launched on October 26: 100% green electricity contracts at no extra cost for the customer.
The European Commission is investigating your Engie II subsidiary in Luxembourg, to which 27 billion euros have been transferred. What explains this arrangement?
Engie’s approach was a legal one and the investigation about possible state aid is aimed at Luxembourg. Engie has historic ties with the Benelux countries. We decided to set up financial activities there because it was the birthplace of our industrial activity, because we have our teams there, and because it was of tax-related interest to us. /p>
Does Brexit put into question your nuclear project with Toshiba in the United Kingdom?
We still have three years to go before making our decision. Along with our partner, we are studying the site and working on the reactor design. It is too early to know what contractual environment the UK will be ready to agree to in order to ensure the project’s economic profitability.
Is nuclear power still strategic for ENGIE?
All our nuclear plants are in Belgium and we employ around 8,000 people in the nuclear sector. Furthermore, we have decided to maintain engineering and services activities in a field where there are extremely large decommissioning needs.
Does it get on your nerves to be pigeonholed the first woman of the CAC40?
I am aware that it represents a challenge when I receive hundreds of messages from women telling me how important it was. I also notice that every decision I make is highly scrutinized. Real equality will be achieved when female company bosses are no longer under the spotlight …
Read the article in Le Journal du Dimanche by Bruna Basini and Guillaume Rebire. (in French)