02 Jul Cutting-edge green technology energizes the economy and protects the planet
Supplying two million people with environmentally friendly power, cooling, heating, electromobility and telecommunications is all in a day’s work for Austrian energy giant Wien Energie. The company is actively shaping the future of energy through innovation and research, particularly in renewables, as CEO, Michael Strebl, explains.
Please give us an overview of the energy sector in Vienna and Austria as a whole. How is Wien positioned in the space?
The energy sector in Austria is quite remarkable compared to Europe and the world. Approximately 70 percent of our electricity comes from renewable energy sources, which is due to our waterpower stations located along the Danube and in the Alps. That is exceptionally high, ahead of Switzerland and second only to Norway. If you look at Poland, that relies a great deal on coal still, or even the UK, which is still gas dependent, we can be considered a frontrunner. From my experience of working in Silicon Valley, I observed firsthand that they also get their energy from old coal plants and low-efficiency gas plants.
Vienna is a metropolis where we serve about two million customers. Of course, there is not so much waterpower here because the Alps are not in Vienna. Our forefathers in Wien Energie invested in the construction of the CHP, or high-efficiency cogeneration power plants in which we combine heat from power stations in Simmering and in Donaustadt. It is gas heat, but they not only produce electricity but also district heating. In fact, the heating system in Vienna is one of the largest in Europe. Our world-renowned system, known especially for the combination with waste incineration we created, referred to as the Viennese system, is held in high regard. In Vienna, all the waste is brought to our power plants where it is recycled to be used in district heating. We are extremely well positioned in terms of the high level of renewables and our high energy efficiency CHP process. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement.
In electricity, we are investing quite a lot in renewables. We are a leader as the largest supplier of photovoltaic energy in Austria, with 320 solar power plants. Solar is a powerful energy source for cities. In the west, we have the Alps supplying hydropower, and in the east we have our wind turbines as the region is quite windy. However, in Vienna, we cannot build a wind farm in Stephansplatz [Vienna’s main square]. The natural energy source of cities are the thousands of roofs that offer space for solar panels. That is precisely what we are doing. We use the roofs of public buildings to place our solar installations.
Wien Energie is one of Austria’s top 30 companies with a revenue of around €2 billion. Not only do we supply Vienna, but the surrounding areas as well southern Austria. Our workforce comprises about 2,200 employees and we are investing quite a bit, especially in environmental issues and in carbon neutrality. In our budget, we have €1.2 billion destined toward green investments for the next five years, divided as follows: €400 million in renewable energy, €400 million in renewable heat, €200 million in security of supply, and €200 million in research and development (R&D).
What is the strength of Austria’s telecommunications sector, and what is the company doing to bolster the service to support economic regrowth and match other EU members’ urban centers?
Telecommunications is a profoundly important branch for us as well. We not only provide electricity, gas, and district heating, but we also provide telecom services. A cornerstone of Wien Energie is to be a full-service provider. It is important to boost expansion in communications, but I also see a convergence of the energy and telecom sectors. For instance, we have a pioneer pilot running in Viertel Zwei – in the second Viennese district near the famous Prater – where we established an energy community. There is a residential area of around 100 households whose roofs are hosting our solar installations. Each household owns a part of the panels from which they get their energy, but what is even more significant is the surplus energy can be sold or traded between neighbors. This comes in handy when you go on holiday, for example. This capability is something that is highly integrated with telecommunications technology. We use blockchain, metrics and billing solutions to allow people to account for all the kilowatt hours used, traded and sold. In future, we want to have EV stations which are also connected to the system, so you can charge your car with the energy you get from your own solar panels. It is a perfect example of the conjunction of these two sectors. On a broader scale, we are delivering fiber to many Viennese households, especially in the larger districts.
What impact is digitalization having on Austria’s energy sector? How strong is government support for digitalization and what is the company doing to implement digital technologies in its operations?
Indeed, the digitization of our businesses is exceedingly important. We are focused mainly on three parts. The first is a more efficient operation of our assets. At the moment, they are all remotely driven. We have quite a lot of fully automated waterpower stations with no human operators, for example, in Styria, which is about 200 kilometers away in the southern part of Austria. A second aspect is to have digitalization in customer experience and customer interaction. As I said, we have two million customers in the greater Vienna area, so it is extremely important that we are highly digitalized in that regard. Our new website – meine.wienenergie.at – is where you will find all our digital services. This makes phoning customer services or writing emails totally unnecessary. You can do everything online. The third facet of our digitalization strategy is around personnel, human resources, and culture. You can apply for a job, go through onboarding and offboarding, all entirely online. Nowadays, it is not enough that your services be digital, your entire culture needs to be modernized as well.
What is the company doing to enable the energy transition, promote circular economies, and lower carbon emissions? What key challenges need to be overcome in affecting this change?
Only nine percent of companies in the world know what Co2 emissions they have, and only a third know what these represent in all three scopes. At Wien Energie we have a dedicated accountability system to measure our emissions in all three, making us among the three percent of the companies in the world who have truly clear insight into their Co2 footprint. Once you know your footprint, the next step is how to reduce it. We have implemented several measures and invested a great deal into exploring how we can become carbon neutral. Another unique aspect of how we work is that we have a strict Co2 emission plan. We have a climate protection plan for Wien Energie, with an aim of being Co2 neutral by 2040. Then, within that longer term target, we have set shorter term targets which we find to be compulsory. By 2030, we want to have reduced our emissions by 42 percent, followed by another interim goal for 2035. This is approved by the board and included in our official management bio-objectives. We really see ourselves as frontrunners in our approach to carbon neutrality.
It is important to recognize that only 20 percent of emissions come from electricity. The other 80 percent comes from heat and mobility, each generating 40 percent. If we are serious about decarbonizing the city, it is important to hone in on more than just the electricity sector. This is a mistake that even the EU makes sometimes. At many of the meetings I go to in Brussels, everyone is talking about the electricity sector, and it is only responsible for 20 percent.
Heating plays a huge part, and district heating is a superb model. As I mentioned, we have one of the largest district heating systems in Europe. We take advantage of the Co2 neutral geothermal energy from the hot thermal springs that run about 4,000 meters underneath Vienna to heat our homes. We also use large-scale industrial heat pumps where all the excess heat in Vienna is raised to a higher temperature level where it can be fed into the district center. For example, in our power station in Simmering, the water used for cooling has a higher temperature than its surroundings, but it is too low for district heating systems, so we have a heat pump in between which raises the temperature to a level where it can be fed back into the system. We recently commenced construction on a new large-scale industrial heat pump at a facility at the sewage works in Vienna. The cleaning of our sewage is done through biological and chemical treatments which generate heat. Water coming from the sewage is a bit warmer than its surroundings. The new pump will raise the temperature so it can be used in district heating.
District heating is easier to decarbonize because you do not have to convert the energy system at a household level as conversion is done at the source. When there is no electricity, we use heat pumps to supply our customers with heat. In terms of heating and cooling, our number one goal is putting an end to natural gas, either by using district heating or through customers using small scale heat pumps.
The heat sector, apart from being important, is also the most cost-effective. As you know, it is very expensive to make the energy transition in the heat sector, but Vienna is in an extraordinarily advantageous situation. There is a lighthouse project in Vienna called “Village im Dritten”, in the third Viennese district. We are building heat pumps there and drilling down 200 to 300 meters to reach geothermal energy. We remove the energy from the homes in the summer when it is hot, and we store the energy in the ground. In winter, when it is cold, we bring the energy up to heat homes again. This is a novel example of a circular economy in action.
We have estimated the cost of the energy transition to be around €20 billion in the areas we are involved. Energy transition in our field will cost €1 billion for electricity, €1 billion for mobility, but €18 billion for district heating and in other heating systems. This is where our biggest challenge lies.
What key partnerships does Wien Energie have in academia and the public sector to support its R&D developments? What is the company now focusing on in its R&D efforts?
I have mentioned the pilots in Viertel Zwei and in Village im Dritten. We collaborate with the Technical University of Vienna and also have a program with other European cities to share best practices. Frankly, not all the technical solutions for the energy transition are available to us here, so partnerships are invaluable.
The energy transition is a priority and for me personally, I do not want to be asked by my children who are members of the FridaysForFuture generation what chances I passed up in terms of the transformation as CEO of Wien Energie. Therefore, Co2 reduction is extremely important for me. Focusing on the green transformation holds an economic advantage for our company. All our future customers in the generations to come will accept nothing but green energy. Fossil fuel energy will simply not be marketable. In three or four years, no one will buy a diesel vehicle. The same goes for energy in 10 or 15 years. Coal, atomic energy or other obsolete energies will not have a place in the market. It just makes good business sense to prioritize the green transformation.
What personal priorities do you have as CEO going forward? What will Wien Energie and Austria’s energy sector look like in the future?
I have been the CEO for six years now, starting in the fall of 2016. At that time, we underwent a massive restructuring and efficiency optimization process. We reduced the number of divisions and staff by 500 employees in the past five years and are in a much better financial situation. Fitch have given us an AA- rating which is extremely positive. This gives us all the financial means and credibility we need to make this big shift in energy, which is at the top of my list.
Technicians from across the world come to visit our plants to see our waste incineration system that combines with district heating in CHP processes. I always tell the technicians in our power stations that Vienna has consistently been a frontrunner in energy systems, and that now we are establishing a new energy system where everyone will come to learn from it in 20 or 30 years. This is what genuinely motivates and guides me.