Mar 2020 Interview with Mr. Michael Strebl, CEO, WIEN ENERGIE, Austria
Prisma Reports (PR): Wien Energie is major actor in the energy sector, since the company is ensuring the supply of electricity, natural gas and heating to the two million people, businesses and industries, and farms in the Greater Vienna metropolitan area. To start this interview, can you give me a general overview of Wien Energie, how does the company contribute to Vienna’s energy system, to the good security and stability of supplies ?
Michael Strebl (MS):Wien Energie is one of the 50 largest companies in Austria by turnover, employing over 2,200 personnel. As largest regional provider we are responsible for supplying the greater Vienna metropolitan area with energy, the city itself as well as the outskirts. Our portfolio includes electricity, natural gas, district heating, e-mobility, solar energy for businesses, residential buildings and homeowners, fibre optic high-speed internet and telecommunications. Our total production of electricity is 9 GW/h, which means 9 million KW/h, 6.5 GW/h of gas and 6.1 GW/h of heat. Today, we already generate 1.1 GWh of electricity from renewable sources, equivalent to the needs of 440,000 households. The liberalization of the energy market has been going on now for 18 years, and we have a market share of about 2/3, which is extremely high for metropolitan areas.
(PR): Can you tell us about your current priorities and strategic focus areas? How is Wien Energie contributing to the transformation of Austria’s energy sector?
(MS): Lately we have been redefining our strategic focus and we have come up with strategy 2030. As part of our strategy of 2030 we want to have a very clear customer focus, that’s the first pillar. That may be a bit disruptive coming from a utility company, because utility companies focus more on their assets than on customers usually. We want to provide all the people of the metropolitan area of Vienna with different types of energy in a very perfect way. Secondly, as part of our strategy, we are launching a very huge solar energy campaign. By 2030, Wien Energie will provide 600 MW of solar capacity alone, which is equivalent to the consumption of 250,000 households or the cities Graz and Linz combined. Another focus area for Wien Energie is the field of electric mobility or e-mobility. The city of Vienna had a tender two years ago to erect 1000 public charging stations in the city of Vienna. Wien Energie succeed in this tender, and is now responsible for the erecting of the e-mobility charging stations in Vienna. Aside from the infrastructure aspect, we were also very interested in the business model behind that, which fits together with our new focus on customers. We are not only interested in erecting all these charging stations, we also want to build business models around that. The most important pillar is the security of supply. We are now switching more and more to renewable energy which has many advantages, yet storing electricity in a large scale is a big challenge. Of course there are batteries, but it’s difficult to store on batteries in a large scale. Renewable energy is not stable, it’s volatile, you cannot say how much photovoltaic will be produced tomorrow for instance, and therefore you have to have the ability of balancing the energy system. This is a core competence of Wien Energie: to balance our renewable energy supplies and feed the Austrian grid operator. We have a long-term contract with the Austrian grid operator, and all the times that there is lack of energy we supply the grid operator to fill up this lack of energy. If there is too much energy in the system, we have electric boilers and power-to-heat solutions to put out the electricity off the system, so in order to balance it. Over the coming decades Wien Energie’s goal is to drastically reduce carbon emissions in Vienna. This challenge affects all areas of society and businesses, not just electricity (20% of total energy consumption), but also mobility (43%) as well as heating (37%). To meet this challenge, federal, regional and municipal levels of government as well as businesses and consumers have to work hand in hand.
(PR): How do you view the future of energy?
(MS): Wien Energie has a clear strategy for 2030 with clear measures, clear steps that we need to take and their associated timelines. This is a highly sophisticated plan. Our ambition is clear: to achieve significant reductions of CO2 emissions in Vienna. Yet, 2030 is tomorrow in our energy scale, and therefore we are now working on our vision for 2050. The key parameters to accomplish those massive CO2 reductions are the heating system and mobility. Foreseeing the future is the responsibility of energy providers: we have to stick to the Paris process and all the international treaties in place. Vienna is the most liveable city in the world, and we want it to remain the most liveable city in the world. Besides the customers of the future certainly is not willing to consume energy from suppliers who are ecologically irresponsible and not abiding by international treaties. So, beyond environmental protection, it’s also becoming a kind of economic strategy. People want to build a fair energy system for the future, focused on a massive CO2 reduction. Last year we conducted a big study, how can Vienna become CO2-free or CO2-neutral, which is a great challenge because Vienna is growing rapidly. We have to supply more people with more energy, and in addition we have to reduce CO2 emissions, which is contradictory. We made a plan last year.
(PR): Wien Energie has been a pioneer in regards to renewable energie, since it’s been using wind power mills since 1997. Climate and energy are quite an important focus of Austria’s current government. Austria has committed to achieving various objectives in that area. How is Wien Energie contributing to Austria climate and energy goals? Can you give us some examples of your sustainable projects?
(MS):In the next five years, Wien Energie will be investing €1 billion in expanding renewable energy production, such as solar and wind power, and security of supply and innovation. Roughly €500 million will be dedicated to renewables. If the rural parts of Austria are more suitable to install windmills and hydropower due to its open spaces, mountains or topography, in the cities we tend to focus rather on photovoltaic. There are thousands of roofs here in Vienna suitable for exploiting solar energy. To facilitate the process, we have developed new business models for shared photovoltaic systems. Another huge focus area is the mobility sector. According to studies 40% of the CO2 emissions are accountable to the transportation sector. In order to achieve the Paris goals and achieve a cleaner climate, we really have to work to reduce that. With that in mind we are building 1,000 charging stations in Vienna, working on cooperation with the citizens. Indeed, we want to involve the citizens in that project, and so we have developed a cooperation model.
(PR): How is Wien Energie accelerating its digitalisation and working to increase energy efficiency and enabling a smarter energy model?
(MS):Smart energy is a big focus for us. For example, we are working on a smart drone inspection program, that inspects our power stations, our distribution network and are makes thousands of pictures which are stored and then compared with similar pictures of different periods through our algorithms. We survey different sectors and areas using these new technologies in a very precise way. Wien Energie also has a living lab, with people living and working there, and sharing energy together. We have solar panels there, we have a electro-mobility there as well as a broadband telecommunications network. This enables us to get close to our customers, to see their philosophy, and really integrate the customer in our business process.
(PR): Can you tell us also about ‘the Vienna model’ and how the company turning waste into heating? What are the benefits and impacts in terms of costs and CO2 efficiency, and to what extend could this model be replicated in other parts of the world?
(MS): The Vienna model is famous. The Vienna Model utilises waste heat from energy production, a process known as co-generation. As a result, over three million tonnes of CO2 are saved every year. The waste heat from electricity produced in calorific power plants is used for district heating. Co-generation technology makes it possible to combine the production of electricity and district heating while making full use of the fuel’s energy content.
(PR): Wien Energie is mostly focused on the Vienna region as you explained, however going forward, how do you see the company’s role evolve on the global level? How are you working to further internationalize the company? Not so much from a commercial standpoint, but from a R&D perspective, to gain more weight and visibility.
(MS): We want to remain focused on the Vienna metropolitan area because our customers are here. Yet we have to internationalize our company. We are interested in sharing our methods and ways of thinking and exchange with others. We want to import good ideas and new business models to serve people in the most perfect way. For example, we have so called Innovation challenges. Thereby, start-ups from all over the world are invited to work together with Wien Energie employees on solutions in the areas of e-mobility, innovative services, facility management and maintenance. Wien Energie’s infrastructure and resources enable young companies to successfully market their ideas and products, while the start-ups help Wien Energie become more agile and faster in terms of product development.
(PR): Austria is a country that boasts a lot of hidden economic champions, and also a lot of sustainability champions, including Wien Energie. In your opinion what can other nations learn from Austria in regards to energy transition? To what extend do you feel a responsibility to better share your practices and example, as a way to inspire other companies or nations to follow?
(MS): There are a lot of green tech energy companies in Austria. What is unique to Austria is the way by which we implement all the systems: we integrate the citizens in the process, and we cooperate with our customers to implement change. We are involving and engaging people to work with us and we create a consensus. Citizens invest in our windmills, in our photovoltaics, in our charging stations. That’s a USP of Austria: people are working together, they are discussing together and they are implementing together. The Vienna model is a very good model for others. We also have huge developing projects in Vienna where we test energy building management systems, smart energy, e-mobility and smart green solutions.
(PR): As CEO of the company, navigating in the midst of this huge and highly needed energy transformation that we’re seeing, what are your priority and personal objectives?
(MS): The energy market, particularly the electricity sector is becoming increasingly competitive. The electric mobility field will also see an increased competition between OEMs and the electricity providers, which will be a very interesting battle in the future. Who will be able to serve better the customers needs in the field of mobility? It is not only a question of reducing CO2 emissions, it’s also a question of who will be your competitor in the future. My objective is to make Wien Energie more competitive and more fit for the future. We are evolving in very competitive markets, and we have different competitors in the city of Vienna. We are developing a range of different products, and we really have to work hard to remain competitive. We really have to make this turn towards renewable energy. We have to develop several projects including windmills, including photovoltaics, and we have to scale these things, we have to develop prototypes in order to make this a massive deployment. One of the big issues that we have as well as to work on the culture of Wien energy, We have to work better together, and develop a new mindset. This shift is necessary. We are one of the biggest energy suppliers and we want to maintain this leading position in the future.
(PR): To conclude this interview, what would be your final message for our readers?
(MS): We want Vienna to remain the most livable city in the world. If we want to keep this position we have to work hard and implement a number of transitions for the future. The energy field is crucial for a liveable and clean city. Our goal is a massive reduction of carbon dioxide-emissions by 205O. We want to be a game changer and remain In the pole-position to lead to this objective.