Angela Wilkinson: ‘Energy transitions need a bottom-up approach’

18th April 2024


This article was originally published in Management Scope on 17 April 2024.

Interviewer: Cindy Kroon, Vattenfall | Author: Ellis Bloembergen | Image: David Woolfall

For Angela Wilkinson, Secretary General and CEO of the World Energy Council a successful energy transition does not lie in grandiose projects. Rather, local initiatives that enthuse citizens will be a great help. ‘This way, we succeed more effectively in putting people at the center of the energy revolution.’

From April 22 to 25, Rotterdam will be the stage for the 26th World Energy Congress. Political leaders, scientists, NGOs, CEOs and other stakeholders from across the globe will gather to discuss how to accelerate energy transitions. The objective of the international event is not only to debate how to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, but also to inspire participants to take impactful actions that could help solve wider societal problems.

The organizer of the world’s most important energy event is the World Energy Council, which was founded in 1923 and has, since its inception, played a major role in driving global energy transitions. The Council is funded by its registered members and is therefore independent and impartial. This is important for bringing together stakeholders from all parts of the global energy ecosystem to discuss how energy systems might be reimagined to better serve people and communities globally. Or, as the theme of this year’s Congress theme reads: ‘Redesigning energy for people and planet.’

‘Women, workers, youth, indigenous and vulnerable communities, as well as the new emerging middle class. We need to engage all these groups in the energy transition process.’ That is the message of Angela Wilkinson. The UK based energy expert has served as Secretary General and CEO of the World Energy Council since 2019. Wilkinson is the World Energy Council’s sixth Secretary General since its founding in 1923 - and the first woman to have held this influential position since the Council was established more than a century ago.

Wilkinson previously held various governance roles in the public and private energy sectors, including time at the OECD, Shell, British Gas, and others. In addition, she is an academic researcher at the University of Oxford and has written four books on energy issues. She is passionate in her mission to humanize the energy transition. ‘It is time to stop talking about technology and investments, but most of all it is time to put people at the center. Energy transitions must move from a ‘top-down’, to an inclusive ‘bottom-up’ approach. Only then can we succeed.’

Leading up to the event, Wilkinson visited several innovation incubators in Rotterdam. She praised the city for not only having formulated strong sustainability ambitions, but also for having an eye for social opportunities in the transition process. This affords Cindy Kroon, Chief Commercial Officer of Vattenfall, a Rotterdam native herself, some pride. Like Wilkinson, she has a positive hands-on mentality and believes that success stories are important in driving the energy transition. During an interview with Wilkinson, she looks ahead to the Congress. Vattenfall is participating in the congress in Rotterdam as speaker and in addition Kroon is a member of the board of World Energy Council The Netherlands.

The World Energy Council is celebrating its 100th anniversary. What do you think are your organization’s most important achievements?
‘In the past hundred years, we have proven to be very good at three things. First, we manage to bring together many different stakeholders in the energy field. These stakeholders are from all over the world – a total of 120 countries have joined the World Energy Council. We not only have power blocs like the Middle East, China, and America at the table, but also smaller countries and communities that participate. Second, at every transition in history, we have been strong in ‘connecting the dots’. We know how to bridge differences of opinion and translate ambitions into results. We did that when we formed in the 1920s – just after World War I and the Spanish Flu – when a new energy system had to be built. Seventy years ago, we linked energy to social equality; as more households were connected to the energy system, women, for example, were given more opportunities. That boosted women’s emancipation.

Twenty years ago, we developed the World Energy Trilemma framework to link energy security to affordability and equality, as well as sustainable development. We use this to measure how countries perform on energy security on three dimensions: affordability, equality and sustainability. The framework has now been rolled out in 120 countries. We can compare countries and distill best practices from it. Third, we are ‘changemakers.’ We have a diverse network that includes government leaders, local administrators, scientists, CEOs and varied community groups. We share a common belief that we must make the world more sustainable and better. If we fail to do that, we humans simply will not survive.’

There are many conferences on energy. Why is it valuable for companies to attend the World Energy Congress?
‘We are not a commercial conference where CEOs from the energy industry talk about their companies and successes. We are not financed by a single, or a few, large companies. The World Energy Congress aims to share as many insights and experiences as possible. We give a stage to visionary leaders and experts from around the world who explain how they make a difference, who they work with to do so, and how they get it done. Participants also set goals and commit to achieving their ambitions. Usually, the results are presented at a subsequent conference. We aim to share successful examples to inspire each other. The congress is not held in Rotterdam for no reason. Both the port and the city have sustainability ambitions. The port wants to become an international hydrogen hub. The city of Rotterdam wants to tackle the social inequality that may arise from the energy transition. Not everyone can make their home sustainable and thus benefit from more affordable solar energy. That is why the city wants to convert problematic neighborhoods into energy districts.’

What are the main themes of the 26th World Energy Congress?
‘The theme of this year’s World Energy Congress is ‘Redesigning Energy for People & Planet’. We very deliberately chose the term redesign because the relationship between people and planet is fundamentally changing. As this occurs, everyone must have access to the future energy system and be able to benefit from it. This means that we need to redesign the energy system in such a way that global energy transitions can not only be fast, but also fair.

What new points should we connect to accelerate the energy transition in all parts of the world? This cannot be achieved without also considering the societal aspects of the energy transition. Until now, the conversation about the energy transition has revolved mostly around technology and investments. However, we need to humanize the energy transition, in other words, put people at the center. Who are the users of the future energy system? What needs do they have, what opportunities do they have? How do we ensure that everyone benefits from the future energy system? It is not just about ‘net zero’ in 2050, but about something additional: it is also about ‘how’ we achieve this and ‘with whom’ and ‘for whom’. Experiments are being conducted in a multitude of places around the world and are resulting in positive outcomes.’

There is much debate around the energy transition in the Netherlands. If we do not pay attention, the energy transition will lead to inequality and people with the lowest income will benefit the least. How can we prevent this group in society from rebelling?
‘It is a given that we live in a world of inequality. Because of our capitalist system, we do not all have the same level of income. However, we need to bridge that inequality. No one should be left out. It is essential to involve everyone in society in the energy transition. We need to bring different groups from society to the table. If we do not do so, we will miss social support and the necessary energy transition will not get off the ground despite the available technology.

The narrative of the energy transition needs to change. At the moment it centres around weighty themes like hydrogen, new technologies, electrification. For ordinary citizens, the energy transition is over their heads. It is a power game in which they do not participate. Instead, the narrative should be about what role renewable energy can play in citizens’ lives, how important it is for their future and what contribution they can make. Local initiatives must get off the ground. This requires new forms of cooperation between municipalities, local administrators, entrepreneurs, energy companies and citizens. Success stories must be shared. It should not be the mayor, or the CEO of the company concerned, who spreads the news, but citizens who benefited from it. This is how we will succeed in activating different groups in society.’

The energy transition is accompanied by significant polarization. On the one hand, there are activists who say that the transition to a sustainable planet is going too slowly. On the other hand, there are critics who argue that climate change is nonsense and that there is no need to fund the energy transition with vast amounts of money. How do we navigate such a polarized landscape?
‘I have ongoing conversations with my 23-year-old daughter. She has no interest whatsoever in the energy transition because she has so many other concerns as a young adult.
How will she find a well-paying job? How will she become financially independent? She does not want to be concerned with global problems such as climate change. Many of her generation think that way, but whether they like it or not: they too cannot avoid the climate issue. We must find ways to appeal to these young people and convince them that the energy transition is necessary and that they have their part to play. How is that possible? By having an eye not only for the energy transition but also for the social problems they are struggling with – the high cost of living, the housing shortage. But we also need to get away from the constant debate about who is going to pay for the energy transition. It is very simple: everyone is going to pay for it, because everyone is also going to benefit from it.

There is also room for improvement at international level. In my experience, the energy transition is a competition for many countries. Who is the most sustainable and who takes the lead? Europe in particular is eager to be the best in class. But this has significantly limited the continent’s options in terms of energy supply. The focus in Europe is very much on green-only, on renewable energy sources only. Our approach to policymaking should also be examined. Policy is rather bottom-down, determining from the top-down what is green and what is not. Just like determining which technology and investments are made. All of that has driven up the price of the energy transition tremendously. And that is why you see a countermovement emerging in Europe. Citizens may consider sustainability important, but not at any price. And certainly not if energy security comes under pressure. In other parts of the world, leaders are more pragmatic. For the time being, they are focusing on a wider energy mix, not only to meet national energy needs but also to keep energy affordable.’

Which countries are doing well and can set an example for Europe?
‘There are different routes to a cleaner society, just as there are different visions on how to shape the energy transition. Take China which, thanks to the socialist model, has made enormous progress in a short time. The state made massive investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, green public transportation and biodiversity protection. That country is now considering what productivity really means for a more sustainable society. There are ambitions to transform from an industrial society to an ecological civilization, where people live in much greater harmony with nature. This is a solid mission. Europe likes to shout that it is leading the way, but in fact China has overtaken our continent. What I observe with many countries is that they do not have a single-issue agenda. They are not only focusing on reducing CO2, but also on improving biodiversity or resilience – how can we arm ourselves against the effects of climate change. We have been shouting that we have sustainability goals and are faithfully living up to them since the 1980s, but in fact this is too limited. Europe too needs to do some redesigning. Do we only want to achieve the climate goals? Or do we also want to tackle other social problems? The energy transition is a huge opportunity to redesign not only the energy system but also society.’

What would a successful World Energy Congress look like to you?
‘I would be satisfied if at least ten new ideas for local initiatives that contribute to the energy transition emerged during the conference. These do not have to be grandiose projects, such as electrification of public transport in a country or large-scale hydrogen production. In addition to big ambitions we especially need smaller, local initiatives in which we also enthuse citizens. We can keep talking about expansive plans at a high level but with the realization of local initiatives and new forms of cooperation, the energy transition will have a far more bottom-up approach. This way, we succeed more effectively in putting people at the center of the energy revolution. We are not an activist movement, but activator: an organization that wants to encourage action.’

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