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Alstom powers up to fight climate change

The push for sustainable clean energy as a key driver of developed economies, set against a backdrop of depleted natural resources, may paint a bleak picture for future generations. But according to Philippe Joubert, Executive Vice President of Alstom and President of its Power Sector, that’s not necessarily so, if you know how to properly harness the environment.

“We see the environment as the first driver of the power generation market,” he told INSEAD Professor Horacio Falcao in a recent interview for INSEAD Knowledge, adding this involves the “use of all the technologies, including hydro, wind, biomass, gas, nuclear and even coal.”

“Fossil fuel is responsible for around 60 per cent of the production of electricity today, so it’s a total illusion to say that we are going to get out of fossil fuel.”

Asia, he adds, is heavily reliant on coal, as are major economies such as the US, Europe, South Africa and Australia. “So coal is a must in the production of electricity, and the really important thing now is to make coal clean.”

With this in mind, Alstom Power has advanced its coal-related technology to transform this from talk into action. “We clearly believe, for example, in CO2 capture. We are the first company in the world to have delivered the first really clean coal plants as we are capturing 95 to 97 per cent of CO2 emissions. And we are storing these emissions 2,000 feet below ground level -- this is the first (of its kind) in the world and we are very proud of this.”

He says the company has also made huge strides in hydro-generated power. “We are the first to capture energy from the sea, from tidal energy. We currently have a one megawatt turbine working under the sea, producing electricity. We are the leader in biomass also, for use together with coal; (and) we are in wind obviously.”

Alstom Power has clearly left its options open. Joubert reasons: “We don’t believe in the famous ‘single bullet’ option ... The world will need all the technologies -- including coal, including gas, including oil.”

And Asia, he says, is not only going to represent about 60 per cent of the market in the next 10 years, the region is also making inroads in deploying high-level technology to power up its economies, whether in China, India or elsewhere.

“The idea that China and India are using low-level technology because it’s low cost is slightly misleading. Today already, China is the country with the best efficiency. If you look at the average of all the coal plants working today in China, you have (greater) efficiency than the plants working in Europe or in the United States.”

According to Joubert, customers are not just looking at high-level technology, but also at ‘integrated solutions’ that are both efficient and ecologically sound for the environment. And Alstom provides a fully-integrated package. For example, when it sells a gas plant to a customer, it also services the plant for its entire life cycle.

Even then, Alstom is exploring ways to maximise the use of land on which now-defunct plants stand. “When we talk about the environment, we always talk about CO2, but we should not forget that the next problem that we have is water, and just behind water, you have land. And these two factors are now putting a lot of pressure on our R&D people. What do we do to limit the use of water in our plants and to limit the use of new land?”

But even after applying all possible CO2-free solutions, coal and gas will continue to be used, mostly because of the existing installed base in Europe and the United States. Hence, an increase in carbon capture and storage technologies, as well as in the efficiency of power plants will be needed to tackle the challenge of climate change.

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