The value of waste

The value of waste


"I have always hoped to apply my chemical engineering degree to an industry that had a higher meaning and purpose than simply business. So I immediately tried to deal with renewable energy and sustainable technologies, because they represent the challenge par excellence for the future of the planet. Even if this has meant, so far, that I have always worked outside of Italy". No regrets, mind you, in the voice of Giovanna Chiara, Global Sales & Business Development Manager at Hitachi Zosen Inova and SDA Bocconi EMBA Alumna, but only remarking that corporate Italy has never entered her professional parable. And it is quite an emblematic case. Graduated in Turin, she headed for Spain in 2004, where government policies already favored the development of thermodynamic solar plants, a technology promoted by the Italian Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia. “State incentives allowed the creation of 150-megawatt plants and the utilities were responding in unison,” summarizes the manager. "From there I moved on to deal with offshore wind for General Electric and today in Zurich I work on waste-to-energy plants for Hitachi Zosen Inova, mainly developing the small collateral processes that are connected to the main plant and that favor the recycling of materials. Today, in fact, we no longer speak of Waste to Energy processes but of Waste to X because an array of metals, salts, new raw materials can be obtained from the processing of waste. These are very complex infrastructures which are increasingly inspired by the concept of the circular economy”.
How is the energy market changing with technological innovation applied to the exploitation of renewable sources?
It is changing a lot but not yet enough to alter the established equilibrium. In Europe there is already a good base for renewables but there is still a lot to do to decrease dependence on gas imports. On a global level, however, the most promising aspect is that developing countries are leapfrogging to new energy infrastructures based on renewables, skipping the intermediate fossil step. Some technologies are well established and the producers are the very same countries that need them most, such as China, which is already a leader in solar energy. Another fundamental chapter is the one related to the theme of smart grids and batteries which are increasingly strategic to circumvent the variability of natural sources, but also on this front technology is moving towards increasingly commercial over-the-counter solutions and costs will soon consequently drop.
Talking about costs, until now businesses and individuals have struggled to see the economic convenience of energy produced from renewable sources. What is the key to overcome this obstacle?
According to the latest report by the International Energy Agency, the cost per megawatt-hour from renewables has already reached parity or is even lower than electricity generated from fossil sources and therefore also prices for power plants are increasingly competitive, especially considering that investment pays for itself very quickly as the fuel is available in nature free of charge. PPAs, Power Purchase Agreements, long-term contracts with which plant builders become exclusive suppliers for companies for at least 10 years at a fixed price, with benefits accruing to both parties, are also working very well. It is a model that has become established in Nordic countries and is now spreading also in Italy. For the private consumer, however, the issue varies from country to country and depends on how the market is regulated. Where there is traceability of the so-called "green electron", then you pay the price based on generation from renewables, but where instead electricity from the different sources flows into a single stream, this distinction is not possible and bills are not differentiated.
Why is it so difficult to start the construction of new plants in Italy?
Having never worked in Italy, I cannot express myself, but in general the issue is always political. Technology moves where there are favorable laws that push investment in the right direction. Of course, it is to disconcerting to read that Spain meets 36% of its electricity needs with renewable sources and in Italy we are stuck at a paltry 12%.
You also have a strong green awareness, you don’t use plastic, don’t have a car... What do you think of nuclear power?
I think it has indisputable advantages because it guarantees a baseload, or basic supply of energy, which is constant and reliable, without the typical variability of natural sources. I believe in progress, in the safety of power plants and above all in a solution of the problem of processing nuclear waste. That said, no single technology is the solution to the energy problem, but a plurality of power sources will have to be employed.
Would you return to work in Italy? Maybe for the institutions or for a public administration to facilitate the recovery of the gap with other European countries?
If there really were the possibility of working in a similar role, I would be happy to do it, because it is a subject I know well, a job that I love and in which I strongly believe, even if there is a still a lot of ground to cover. On the waste issue, however, I am discovering that Italy is not so far behind as on other fronts; there are macroscopic emergencies like that of Rome, but also forms of excellence in other municipalities. However, we must unblock the new plants: here in Switzerland there are dozens of waste-to-energy plants in operation, also because “landfilling has been banned, while in Italy it is not even possible to build a single one… It would be useful to have a common EU policy on the issue.”
Giovanna Chiara graduated in chemical engineering from the Polytechnic of Turin, and got her EMBA from SDA Bocconi School of Management, the MBA designed for executives with job experience. "At some point in my career, I realized I needed to add business skills to my scientific background," says the manager who today holds the role of Global Sales & Business Development Manager for the company Hitachi Zosen Inova. "I had a great hunger for this kind of knowledge and a desire to change perspectives in approaching the industry and project finance because I lacked a holistic vision of the company. This is why the experience at Bocconi was fundamental ". Formerly manager at Iberdrola in Spain and then head for General Electric Renewable Energy of the tenders for offshore wind farms, today she follows the development of waste-to-energy plants in Zurich for the Swiss-Japanese corporation Hitachi Zosen Inova.

by Emanuele Elli
Translated by Alex Foti

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