Journalist: Erik Brühlmann | Photographer: Markus Bertschi | Magazin: Green opportunity – November 2021
For companies in the energy sector, sustainability is more than just a buzzword. For Alpiq CEO Antje Kanngiesser, it’s obvious that this goes far beyond an energy mix and the latest wind turbine.
The term ‘sustainability’ is everywhere these days and frequently overused. How do you understand it?
For me personally, it starts with being aware of the impact of my actions. Sustainability is about being considerate and frugal for the sake of the common good. Do I really need this item? Do I absolutely have to buy it now? At Alpiq, we interpret sustainability according to the three P’s: financial performance, social performance and environmental performance.
When it comes to sustainability, short-term and long-term interests often clash. How do you reconcile them?
Sustainability isn’t the only area in which short-term operational and long-term strategic business can get in each other’s way. It’s important for a company to be clear about where it stands in terms of its values. Is an opportunity seized because it promises a quick buck, or is it deliberately passed up because it isn’t in line with the company’s values? Questions like these make for stimulating discussions, including with shareholders.
But shareholders want to make money!
Our shareholders know that our business is influenced by long-term price cycles that encompass good and challenging years alike. In the conventional energy sector, we don’t deal in months, but in years. In our industry, ‘fast’ means being able to implement a hydrogen project in 12–18 months, for example. However, we generally tend to work within a timeframe of 15–20 years when it comes to production facilities.
You mentioned the three pillars of sustainability: economic, ecological and social aspects. Is it possible to give equal weight to all three, or is one pillar always neglected to some extent?
In the past, social and ecological aspects were often considered secondary to economic concerns. Today, we get all the stakeholders involved in a major project on board at an early stage. For example, we were able to draw a positive balance after more than ten years of cooperation in the construction of the 900-megawatt Nant de Drance pumped storage power plant. Fifteen environmental compensation measures ensure that the environmental impact of constructing the power plant and connection to the European electricity grid is offset effectively. Exemplary cooperation and constructive dialogue among the stakeholders enable us to maintain a balance between producing power and preserving nature.
Alpiq is a European energy company with Swiss roots. For more than a century, Alpiq has been producing climate-friendly electricity from CO2-free hydropower, and it operates a diversified and flexible power plant portfolio throughout Europe. Thanks to its outstanding expertise in asset, portfolio and risk management, Alpiq is a leader in renewable energy marketing. The Group employs around 1,200 people throughout Europe and is based in Lausanne.
What influence do consumers have? Can they push a company towards sustainability?
That’s much more the case today than in the past because more information is available. Social media are a powerful watchdog that stakeholders can increasingly use to influence corporate behaviour.
“We need to understand that the future is now and action has to be taken right away to protect the climate.”
Can sustainability serve as a business model?
There are examples of this, like the Swiss start-up which uses apple peel to produce vegan leather for mobile phone cases and wallets. But sustainability is much more than a business model. It’s also the mindset and quality of how a business is run. How do I lead people within the company? To what extent are processes optimised for sustainability? Which suppliers do we work with? Company car or public transport pass? Sustainability involves so many aspects within a company, and at Alpiq we’re currently in the process of analysing them all. This is an arduous task that requires courage and perseverance because we’re questioning everything – even things that might have worked quite well for a long time.
What does sustainable management mean for a company?
We want our sustainable energy activities to contribute as much as possible to a better climate and improved security of supply. But we’re aware that we can’t become climate neutral overnight. We also know that we can’t rely solely on wind and solar power at the moment because we need to guarantee the security of supply. Within this framework, we can make full use of our creative options. For example, we sold off coal-fired power plants even though they brought in good money. That choice enabled us to reduce our CO2 emissions by more than half. That doesn’t make the climate any better per se, since these plants are now operated by someone else. But for Alpiq, the decision was an important step in the right direction. Meanwhile, we’re investing in green hydrogen production. We’re consciously taking on a pioneering role here because we want to drive the process rather than be driven by it. Many other questions also arise: Which political and business partners do we want to work with? How do we ensure we have a diverse workforce? How do we finance projects – using conventional methods or via green bonds? What goals do we set and how do we measure them? All these questions relate to sustainable management.
Antje Kanngiesser (47) was born in northern Hesse, Germany, and trained as a lawyer. She completed her PhD at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Further studies in finance and management followed. From 2001 to 2007, Antje Kanngiesser worked as a lawyer in Berlin. In the period from 2007 to 2014, she held various positions at Energie Ouest Suisse and subsequently within the Alpiq Group. In 2014, she joined the Bern-based energy company BKW, where she had various roles, including serving as a member of the Executive Board. In 2021, she returned to Alpiq as its CEO. Antje Kanngiesser lives in Murten, Switzerland, with her husband and two children.
You mentioned green hydrogen production. How important is this for Alpiq?
We recognised the potential of green hydrogen for achieving climate objectives early on. Green hydrogen plays an important role in reaching the net-zero emissions target – especially through its use in zero-emission transportation. The Hydrospider joint venture, in which we hold a 45% stake, commissioned Alpiq’s Gösgen hydro-power plant, a green hydrogen production plant that’s currently the largest in Switzerland (2 MW). Now we’re planning to build a 10 MW electrolysis plant in cooperation with two partners. That plant is scheduled to go into operation from the end of 2022. When completed, it will supply up to 200 electric fuel-cell lorries with about 1,000–1,200 tonnes of green hydrogen. This can eliminate about 14,000 tonnes of CO2 a year when compared to the use of diesel vehicles.
So has the issue of sustainability changed Alpiq over the last 20 years?
Absolutely. But in that time the whole industry has also reinvented itself five times over!
You mentioned the variety of energy sources available. What is Alpiq’s electricity mix at present?
Hydropower, wind and photovoltaics account for about 60% of the installed capacity. The rest consists of gas-generated power and nuclear energy. Three quarters of our portfolio is already CO2-free.
“We’ve never been in a better position to change things.”
All sustainability-related considerations must safeguard the security of supply. However, National Fund projects 70 and 71 showed that renewable energy sources can’t currently meet that goal without the support of nuclear power. Does this mean that nuclear power plants will continue to be in use for longer than we would like?
As long as they can be operated safely and economically, they’ll remain a part of the solution in the transition to a fully renewable energy supply. However, the current debate about new nuclear power plants is a red herring. After all, it would probably take 30 years from planning to approval to construction and commissioning. We need to focus on expanding renewable energy sources.
Shouldn’t the public and stakeholders be made aware that you can’t harp on about sustainability while at the same time blocking every new project?
That’s the ‘not in my back yard’ attitude. Switzerland is so small that you’re always in someone’s back yard. We need to speed up our decision-making processes. If you spend ten years discussing a project, that’s ten years lost. We need to act now to improve the future.
Does this mean that sustainability will spread all by itself?
Only those measures that make sense. Not so long ago, photovoltaic systems were considered unacceptable as a means of generating electricity within the power industry. But today, photovoltaic technology is generally accepted. It’s only a question of time before a sensible approach is established. How long that takes depends on all of us, because you have to be willing to let go of old habits – and that’s something people have difficulty with.
Antje Kanngiesser – In the spotlight
What personal goal do you hope to achieve?
My goal in life is to be happy. And if I’m unhappy, I do something to quickly make the situation more positive.
How sustainable is your personal life?
We do a great deal at home, but we also know that it’s far from enough. We mostly get around on foot, by bike or on public transport. In addition to an electric car, we have a camper van that runs on diesel. We always buy locally produced food and aim to choose products in season. Winter tomatoes and March strawberries don’t make it onto our table. But there’s still much left to do.
What have you learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic?
That I’m an extremely social person! I missed people, physical contact – even handshakes. But I also realised how selfish people can be when it comes to not wearing a mask or getting vaccinated, for example.
Has the pandemic changed anything for you in the long term?
The physical distance and sense of detachment have certainly left a lasting impression on us. I wonder if we’ll ever go back to the relaxed contact that we previously had with other people and which we used to consider normal.
What’s your vision for the world of the future?
We’ve never been in a better position to change things. Unfortunately, we keep finding ostensibly good reasons not to take action. We need to understand that the future is now and action has to be taken right away to protect the climate.