3D Vision

3D Vision

Decarbonised, Decentralised and Digital is the mantra of CEO Isabelle Kocher as she leads the greening and transformation of the French energy giant Engie.

If you asked the CEO of an energy company if it was ready to go green, or why, you might expect a careful and diplomatic response, or maybe an explanation based on the business case for such a move. But that's not the sort of reply you'll hear from Isabelle Kocher.

Ms Kocher, the CEO of Engie Group, appears earnest and determined when she talks about the French company's decision to increase its investment in renewable energy.

"It's better for the world," she firmly tells Asia Focus.

The multinational utility formerly known as GDF Suez in recent years has been pursuing a shift to low-carbon energy and innovative integrated solutions, and Ms Kocher has played a big part in the transformation. One prime example is its target to provide electricity by 2020 to 20 million people who now lack access to power.

Ms Kocher joined Engie in 2011 as chief financial officer and became chief executive in May 2016 when Gérard Mestrallet became chairman of the board. She is the first female CEO in the male-dominated French energy industry.

With an educational background in geology, Ms Kocher has always been passionate about natural resources and obsessed about world development, based on her formative years working in the water industry. "In the beginning I believed that the first step for the development of a country, for example, was water," she recalls.

She has, however, changed her perspective "because when you have energy you have everything. You have water through energy, not the opposite. That is the reason why I moved (to the energy sector)."

The energy sector is now on an epic journey of transformation led by technological innovation. Ms Kocher believes the industry is now equipped with the necessary means to actually "change the lives of people".

For example, Engie Group is now developing solar-powered mini-grid systems in Africa, a continent where 75% of the 1.2 billion people still lack proper access to electricity because they are not connected to mainstream electricity grids.

The project, called PowerCorner, was launched in Tanzania in early 2015 in a remote village known as Ketumbeine, where 800 people live without electricity. Engie supplies an easy-to-install solar panel system with a mini-grid to power homes, a simple setup that can be applied anywhere the sun shines.

Off-grid solar power is not new to the African continent as there are around 100 small scale developers that have been making it their business, but Engie was one of the first big energy players to jump into this niche market.

THE SOLAR BET

Under Ms Kocher's guidance, Engie in 2015 acquired 95% of Solairedirect, a global solar player that operates on four continents, with installed photovoltaic capacity of 1.2 gigawatts.

At the end of 2016, the group had total worldwide installed capacity of 112.7GW of which 19.5% was from renewable sources. Renewables make up 29% of the 5.2GW in new capacity that will be coming onstream soon.

With the Solairedirect acquisition, Engie is now the French market leader in solar energy production with projects totalling 2GW. Its worldwide renewable generating capacity includes total photovoltaic power generating capacity of 201 megawatts across 15 countries including Belgium, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Chile, Canada and the United States.

The Solairedirect acquisition also extended the group's presence in India, Southeast Asia and Mexico. Last April, Engie also signed an agreement for a 30% equity investment through a capital increase in Unisun, a photovoltaic company in China.

Unisun has successfully developed around 500MW of photovoltaic projects in the mainland since 2014. The investment with Engie will enable the company to develop around 4GW in China by 2020. To put it in perspective and based on experts' calculations, a one-gigawatt solar farm is estimated to provide enough electricity for 725,000 households.

Moving forward, Engie has set a goal that by 2020, 80% of the group's businesses will be related to renewables.

"This new energy world is extremely positive and full of hope and as a group we decided to be a champion of that," says Ms Kocher.

"[Solar energy] is almost without any limit. It has huge potential and is extremely flexible as far as technology is concerned. You can implement projects on a very large scale and you can build a huge farm of one gigawatt which is the equivalent of a nuclear plant at launch."

But the beauty of solar is its flexibility. "This type of technology can be implemented at home and couple that with new storage capacity, solutions and batteries that are more and more competitive, you can now have a very local system," she explains.

"The home-based solar system can be extremely easy to set up and it can bring clean energy to communities that once had never been connected to any power utility grid before."

A steady stream of innovations has brought down the price of solar energy by tenfold over the past decade. Like the electronics industry, Ms Kocher points out, solar is known to be quickly receptive to innovation and technological change. New technologies and new surfaces get discovered every few months, so prices will continue to drop, she says.

3D PLUS 1

Still, Engie is far from abandoning fossil fuels. As of the end of 2016, 58% of its installed capacity came from natural gas -- the "GDF" in GDF Suez was the gas monopoly in France -- and 9% from coal. The rest came from renewable sources including wind, biomass and biogas, solar and hydropower.

The company and Ms Kocher are, however, committed to change this fuel mix. For instance, the group plans to spend €1 billion between 2016 and 2019 to become a leader in the world of energy transition.

Engie describes this new energy world by using the abbreviation 3D, of which one D is "Decarbonised", and that involves the use of renewable energy combined with gas. Why the mix? The answer is quite simple: the sun goes down at night so gas is needed for electricity generation.

"Our belief, which is not only ours, is that the future will be based on gas plus renewables and these will replace, possibly, coal and oil," Ms Kocher says.

To decouple from fossil fuels, the company has a three-year, €15-billion "disinvestment programme" to withdraw from its oil and coal businesses. It includes the sale of holdings in two coal-fired generating plants -- one in Indonesia and the other in India -- to reduce coal fuel by 16%. It has already sold its entire stake in Petronet LNG, India's biggest importer of liquefied natural gas, last year.

In the same year, it acquired a 6.6% equity stake in Heliatek, the German industrial startup specialising in the manufacture of organic photovoltaic film in order to develop innovative decentralised energy production solutions.

The latter investment fits into the second D for "Decentralised", which means that in the future, a lot more energy will be produced at the site where it is consumed, for example, at home. Ms Kocher cites a scenario projected by the International Energy Agency, that with current available technology, up to 50% of the electricity we are using could actually be produced at home, right now.

"Local production plus batteries plus the internet of things (IoT) to connect with your equipment at home could balance the system in real time," she explains. "These decentralised systems are all based on digital by definition, such as a smart home which would need IoT and data management that exist in the digital world."

But Ms Kocher isn't stopping at 3D. "What I'd like to add to the 3D of Decarbonised, Decentralised and Digital is, however, the D of Diversity," she says.

New technology, she explains, needs to fit in with local communities, because all these decentralised systems will be used and maintained by local people. If the company wants to clearly understand the expectations of clients in the field, "we have to be as diverse as they are".

Ms Kocher is a firm believer in diversity. In an early speech she made after accepting the CEO position, she said: "For a company to be successful, it has to resemble the society it serves."

Gender diversity in the workplace is part of that. As the only female CEO of an energy company of this size, she has tried to push for more gender diversity, but concedes that the French still have a problem with gender equality in the workplace.

For example, only 13% of senior management posts and 1% of CEO positions are held by women. The proportion of women in top-level post-secondary scientific education has not increased since she graduated from l'Ecole des Mines engineering school back in the 1980s.

"When you think of gender diversity there really are two issues at stake: the lack of diversity at every organisational level and the continued lack of diversity in traditionally male-dominated fields," she says.

Ms Kocher has targeted that by 2020, women will represent 25% of the Engie workforce while 35% of high-potential managers will be female. Right now one out of every three senior managers appointed by Engie is female.

"When a company is recruiting from all demographic groups, it is automatically expanding the pool of talent sources and is more likely to hire the best talent," she says.

"Moreover, a diverse company will more closely mirror society, which gives it a competitive edge in understanding the needs of specific groups."

Looking at the energy market outlook for Asia, Ms Kocher believes that the level of renewable energy adoption in Asia is "coming up fast" and the driver is public opinion which is "extremely demanding" in terms of air quality, climate change management and access to energy.

"This is about to be clear in Thailand with the 4.0 national agenda," she says. "It is very clear now in Singapore because it is a country where the demand for energy is now declining. That means it is no longer a question of access to energy but it is more about new usages of solutions that are bringing additional comfort."

There is also a strong push for renewable energy in Indonesia, where people "really need" a decentralised solution to tackle the problem of bringing energy to 17,000 of its habitable islands.

Ms Kocher's resolution to help provide clean energy to the whole world is an ambitious one but she is determined to archive this by advocating for solar, wind and other innovative systems, despite what other energy companies may think.

"It is the best card because this is what exactly what people want and what communities want, and it is the best way to attract the best talent because the young generation wants that," she says.

"I and Engie are extremely dedicated to making this new world happen."

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