13.01.2021 | Axpo CEO Christoph Brand on the importance of sustainability within the Group
Christoph Brand, you have been CEO of Axpo since May 2020. Have you taken over a sustainable company?
Definitely – and across all three dimensions of sustainability. Axpo is on a solid economic footing. We are performing well on an environmental level as Switzerland’s largest producer of renewable energy. And we also play an important role in society as a relevant company and responsible employer.
How do you define economic sustainability?
Through interconnections in production, trading business and international customer business, Axpo has set a course for sustainable economic success at an early stage. The results for the past financial year were very positive despite the challenging economic environment. The EBIT of CHF 791 million and the free cash flow of CHF 319 million were both significantly higher than in the previous year, underlining our operational strength.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Axpo?
Demand for electricity has obviously fallen during the crisis, with some markets such as Italy seeing a significant drop. At the same time, Trading & Sales achieved very good results. This shows that Axpo is well set to absorb setbacks in individual markets and business areas.
How has the coronavirus crisis affected operations in the power plants?
Axpo operates critical infrastructure in Switzerland. The safety of both our employees and the power plants is paramount. Our power plants and grids ensured reliable delivery at all times, and our employees have done a fantastic job. The overhauls of the Beznau and Leibstadt nuclear power plants were only possible with extensive protective measures in place, but they were completed successfully.
How has the coronavirus crisis affected Axpo as an employer?
We reacted quickly and professionally; at times we were even ahead of the authorities. The safety of our employees was and remains our top priority. We have adapted the way we work, whether on site at our operating locations or through flexible home working. Digitalisation has received a major boost, making us more agile, more flexible and more efficient. We want to continue to take advantage of this after the coronavirus pandemic.
How do you plan to achieve this?
We want to permanently establish new ways of working in the company – not by imposing them from on high, but through a participatory process that employees can get involved in. Participation is also important to me in the context of the ongoing strategy process, which is why we have also invited younger employees to take part.
What does diversity mean for Axpo?
Axpo is an extremely diverse company. Our employees come from around 60 different countries and are active in a wide range of professional fields. We are also seeking to increase the proportion of female employees and managers through a Group-wide diversity programme. Diversity in every respect is becoming increasingly important for corporate success in the face of technological, demographic and social change.
How does Axpo contribute to society?
We created more new jobs last year, adding around a further 300 FTEs. Axpo also supports over 200 different organisations and projects with a cultural, environmental or social focus.
How important is environmental sustainability?
Hugely important, not just for Axpo but for society as a whole. Viewed as a whole, our power plant portfolio produces around 80 g of CO2 per kilowatt hour, a quarter of the European average. And in Switzerland, we generate around one-third of the country’s consumption almost entirely without greenhouse gas emissions. We also make our customers more climate-friendly by offering them bespoke renewable energy solutions.
Why are Axpo’s renewable energy investments chiefly in other countries?
Axpo has invested a lot of money in renewable energy in Switzerland over the past ten years. With an installed capacity of around 5,000 MW, Axpo is the country’s largest producer of renewable energy. We operate over 100 large-scale and small-scale hydro power plants in Switzerland and generate electricity from the recycling of biogenic waste. Photovoltaics is also a key area in Switzerland. Our subsidiary CKW installs a new PV plant almost every working day. Together with CKW, we have also set up a new business segment for battery storage systems. There are currently major question marks over the economic viability of systems such as large-scale PV plants in Switzerland, however, which will persist for as long as the regulatory framework remains fairly unfavourable. Hydro power is unfortunately value-destructive overall, mainly due to the high water charges. You could say that the whole of Switzerland benefits from hydro power, but that we and the other producers are the ones footing the “bill”.
What are the main areas of focus in Europe?
We market around 16,600 MW of renewable energy in Europe, primarily wind and photovoltaic power. With our Urbasolar and Volkswind subsidiaries, we are constantly expanding PV and wind energy in Europe. Volkswind has already realised a total capacity of over 1,100 MW and is planning further plants with a combined installed capacity of 4,000 MW. Urbasolar is one of Europe’s leading players in the photovoltaic sector. The company has already built around 400 PV plants with a capacity of 370 MW and has a further 1,000 MW in the project pipeline.
What lies behind this growth in renewable energy?
We will only be able to meet the demand for electricity, which realistically is set to rise sharply, by massively expanding supply from renewable sources. With this in mind, we are targeting further growth in the renewable energy sector. We are also combining environmental and economic sustainability, for example through bespoke energy procurement contracts that bring producers and consumers of renewable energy together. Put simply, we handle the marketing for producers, and guarantee quantities and prices for buyers. This is helping to make wind and PV increasingly competitive and also subsidy-free, as the example of the 25 MW PV plant in Evora, Portugal, has shown.
Axpo issued its first-ever green bond – a bond for sustainable projects – in the last financial year. Why did it do this?
Sustainability is a central pillar of our corporate strategy and is becoming an increasingly important selection criterion for investors. By issuing our first green bond, we want to strengthen our commitment in this area and create the basis for further green funding. We will use the net proceeds of CHF 133 million to finance PV and wind energy projects. The huge interest shown by investors confirms that we are on the right strategic path towards profitable growth in renewable energy. Axpo recently received an ESG rating of “C+” from ISS Oekom. This makes Axpo one of the most sustainable companies in the utilities sector.