Ourania Ekaterinari, is Deputy CEO of Public Power Corporation S.A., the leading Greek electricity utility and one of the largest industrial groups in Greece. Ourania is also a member of the Supervisory Board of the Independent Power Transmission Operator and has 10 year experience in corporate & investment banking. She is the first Greek woman to be announced member of the global Rising Talents Network of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and the Society in 2010.
WIL Europe: You have considerable experience working in the energy sector. What made you decide to work in this field?
Ourania Ekaterinari (OE): I worked for several years in corporate & investment banking, focusing on the energy sector, due to my electrical engineering academic background. This was very valuable for stepping into the industry, having gained considerable experience in terms of energy projects financing, in assessing investments and in risk management. Experience in advisory and M&A work was also very helpful. Particularly at times of great uncertainty, the ability to combine technical knowledge with actual understanding of markets and the view of different stakeholders (including shareholders, creditors, regulatory /supervisory bodies, equity analysts, rating agencies, etc.), is crucial.
WIL: Considering the current state of the European economy, the emergence of powerful economic actors in the developing world and the continuing issue of climate change and sustainability, where do you see the future of the energy sector?
OE: Because of the increasing requirement for competitiveness in European regions, which is directly linked to the cost of energy, a critical discussion is taking place concerning the medium to long term European Energy policy. Up until recently, the EU energy landscape was characterised by rising consumption, dependency on imported fuels and intense environmental debates, resulting to certain actions for renewables penetration and reduction of carbon footprint. Following the economic slowdown, a Low Cost Energy Strategy has started to emerge, which aims to address ‘from scratch’ all critical parameters of energy planning towards achieving competitive, sustainable and clean energy sources. Climate change issues remain very important, but many policies have to be re-assessed together with the funding issue and cost of capital. Take for example the renewables sector: apart from re-assessing the level and type of subsidies for each renewable source, we also need to assess in parallel all the other necessary supportive long term investments i.e. in network infrastructure, flexible power plants for the provision of ancillary services, electricity storage investments etc. We are talking about a new power system model, that everything is interrelated in terms of operation and should be combined towards calculating the ‘’all-in’’ cost. Risk – reward appetite of all active players also needs to be taken into account. I am afraid that the ‘’happy medium’’ between the three basic concerns of ‘security of supply’, ‘low cost’ and ‘low environmental impact’ still needs to be found.
WIL: In 2012 the European Commission issued the Energy Efficiency Directive, which changed the established premise from “consuming energy” to “saving energy”. How has this change affected the sector?
OE: Well, there are two ways to look at the problem of energy sustainability: from the generation side - through achieving the right ‘energy mix’ at a sustainable cost – but also from the consumption side. Demand management and requirement for energy efficiency measures is gaining momentum and it is crucial for consumers, industries and the environment. That’s why the Energy Efficiency Directive is so important; because we desperately need a framework to become more active on the demand side: starting from the consumer who is trying to change daily consumption patterns (especially if there are associated benefits on tariffs), to energy efficiency initiatives in the building sector where there is tremendous potential, to energy efficiency investments in the industry. Energy companies can also introduce such measures, starting from power plants & network upgrades to promotion of smart metering. Energy saving is win-win and for that, Europe needs to introduce specific targets and timelines, while providing sufficient tools to support financing (ie mobilisation of regional funds, public – private partnerships, support from European organisations like EIB, etc). Obviously, the energy companies need to support it as well: though it may lead to ‘’less energy sales’’, energy efficiency also means less capex requirements and more efficient use of the available capital for new infrastructure.
WIL: How can innovation in the energy sector increase economic competitiveness and social cohesion?
OE: Innovation by itself has the meaning of better utilisation of resources & cost optimisation, while improving quality of products & services. In this respect, consumers enjoy a better product at a lower cost while less natural resources are ‘spent’ for the benefit of the environment. This is also good for consumers, companies and the economy overall, thus contributes to social cohesion. However, I can’t see at the moment a major technological breakthrough which in the short to medium term can change the landscape to this direction. There are many things ongoing, starting from renewable technologies, smart metering, electric cars potentially, but it will take time, while funding remains crucial for research and/or commercialisation of respective technologies in large scale.
WIL: In the energy debate, what should have priority over the other: economic or environmental concerns?
OE: It depends when exactly you look at it: At times of economic growth, there is increased environmental awareness. At times of economic slowdown or even worse, within a recessionary environment, ‘’affordable’’ energy becomes the main concern. Electricity bills do have a direct impact on households and today in ‘’troubled’’ economies, increasing energy poverty is being witnessed and this can no longer be neglected. Take Greece as an example: cost of energy is increasing not only because of commodity prices but also because of increased taxes on fuels & energy, increased green levies and additional CO2 related costs while less & less consumers, at such high levels of unemployment, are able to pay their energy bills. Introduction of social tariffs to protect social cohesion becomes important, together with other potential measures that have to be examined at a European level, besides any actions that may be taken at a national level. Obviously, the question of concern is not which of the two should have priority, but how we can balance the two in an optimum way at good but also at bad times.
WIL: How important are ecological initiatives for company’s marketing strategies and market success?
OE: Environmental initiatives and investments, reducing the carbon footprint of energy companies are important and should be part of a company’s strategic planning. The energy companies need to demonstrate the necessary awareness and action plan in order to safeguard energy and environmental sustainability. Thus ecological initiatives are directly linked and must remain linked to long term market success. Environmental investments represent a major part of my Company’s, PPC, strategy and objectives, despite the current difficult economic environment.
WIL: How has business changed due to environmental aspirations?
OE: The electricity sector has changed substantially due to the relatively high penetration of renewables. Renewable energy, and especially wind parks and photovoltaic cells, have changed the way the energy market functions: they have contributed to the current decreasing need for peak capacity, which led to decreasing wholesale prices, but at the same time (because of their intermittent and stochastic characteristics), they have increased the need for electricity storage, provision of ancillary services, flexible back-up capacity, fast demand response, enhanced power grids etc. In my opinion an important next step in terms of energy technology will be smart metering and the ability for consumers to monitor their energy consumption and respective energy bills regularly ‘at their finger tips’.