One month since Eurelectric welcomed its new Presidency team, Leonhard Birnbaum – E.ON CEO and President of Eurelectric – reflects on the past year and on what’s next for Europe’s energy sector in an on-stage interview with Sasha Twinning – TV and radio anchor – at Power Summit 2023.
Last year, in one of the tensest times for Europe’s energy security, the electricity industry was able to keep the lights on across borders.
“We have managed a crisis response and we learned lots of lessons by doing so, but the crisis is not over yet. Continued crisis response is needed over the upcoming years while moving to structural solutions.” – says Leonhard Birnbaum.
“You’ve got 6.5 years until 2030, what keeps you awake at night when you think about hitting your targets”?
“Speed and scale. If we don’t move fast, it’s irrelevant. For that, we need a different mindset but also more simplicity and more focus.” – responds Leonhard Birnbaum
Moving forward, Europe’s industry and policy should up their game in three fields which are key priorities for Eurelectric’s Presidency:
- Ensure security of supply by electrifying at full speed with an investor-friendly market reform;
- Enable a fair redistribution of the energy transition’s risks and benefits among investors, consumers, and the State;
- Modernise, expand and digitalise Europe’s grid infrastructure, especially at distribution level.
The latter risks becoming “the new permitting”, explains Birnbaum, meaning the single most important bottleneck to Europe’s climate ambition for 2030 and beyond, if not urgently tackled.
Grids’ magic formula: growth, digitalisation and AI
“We really need to put grid infrastructure growth and digitalisation on the agenda. There is no question that we need a much stronger system, with more capacity and strengthened grids to integrate EVs, renewables and heat pumps.” – affirms Birnbaum.
As we rapidly transition to a decarbonised energy system where direct electrification plays a leading role, requests to connect loads from electric vehicles (EVs) and heat pumps, or variable generation from rooftop photovoltaics to the distribution grid areexponentially increasing. E.ON alone will have to deliver a one connection request every seven seconds until 2030 and this frequency will only grow in the future.
“If we don’t fully digitalise our infrastructure, we will not be able to run our energy systems in a stable way going forward. We won’t be able to manage a complex, decentralised system, with more variable generation and flexibility needs. ” – continued Birnbaum.
“Who needs to step up to make this happen?”
The answer is everybody. Utilities should set up ambitious digitalisation projects, while regulators should recognise this effort and incentivise digitalisation investments and politicians should start looking at digitalisation as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is a special case in point for Eurelectric’s President who says:
“I am dismayed by the discussion around AI in Europe. We look at how to regulate it and how to prevent something from happening, but the real point is that if we don’t get AI in our systems, we won’t be able to run them. We need a different mindset. We need to think about the upside of AI. Otherwise, they [our competitors] will just surpass us left and right!
Each one of us should be thinking ‘what is my contribution’? There is something to be done for everybody, and as President of Eurelectric, I am ready to do my part.”