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WirtschaftsWoche from 7.1.2022

The sun catcher

Katja Wünschel in an interview with WirtschaftsWoche

The sun catcher

Energy giant RWE aims to position itself as a green flagship company. Katja Wünschel has a key role in this endeavour. She plans to promote the business in Germany with wind energy and photovoltaics – and get farmers on board.

Katja Wünschel has a pretty good view from her corner office on the fourth floor. The glazed facade looks out over Essen. From her desk, Wünschel can see the modern RWE Campus and a historic RWE administration building. A vent belonging to the Essen-Innenstadt combined heat and power plant appears in front of the window on the right. In December, Wünschel could see the Ferris wheel at the Christmas market – not too shabby.

Wünschel’s job prospects, however, are even rosier. RWE, her employer, has big plans. The energy giant aims to transition from dealing with coal and nuclear power plants to becoming a green flagship company. ‘Growing green’ is the motto that has been coined by RWE Head Markus Krebber. The Group plans to invest a net amount of €30 billion in the energy transition by 2030. And Wünschel is playing a key role in Krebber’s plans. She is in charge of Renewables Onshore in Germany and Europe, and expanding land-based wind energy and photovoltaics. It is fair to say that the 48-year-old is RWE’s go-to woman for all things wind and sun.

The manager is almost acting in the national interest. The German government has set the target of having at least 80 percent of gross electricity demand covered by renewables by 2030. In 2020, it was just 45 percent. It is an ambitious goal. Photovoltaics alone will need to be expanded by almost 15 gigawatts per year, according to calculations by the Institute of Energy Economics (EWI) at the University of Cologne. This is equivalent to the output of more than ten nuclear power plants. The scientists estimate that 3.9 gigawatts of net onshore wind power will have to be added each year. Climate Minister Robert Habeck has spoken of some 1000 to 1500 wind turbines per year – about 25 a week. In 2020, there were just eight. How exactly is this going to work? This is where Wünschel comes in – and her involvement extends to policy level. She is well aware that RWE’s success depends on the government honouring its huge promises by adopting concrete legislation.

Bureaucratic horror stories

RWE plans to invest up to €15 billion in Germany by 2030, with up to €5 billion of this earmarked for onshore wind power and photovoltaics. The Group estimates that it has the capacity to add about five gigawatts of wind and solar power. RWE currently has around 580 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity in wind power and three MW in photovoltaics. It is obvious that the goals of the Essen company are, to put it mildly, ambitious.

But they are not unattainable. “The coalition agreement is the signal we have long been waiting for,” says Wünschel. New areas provide a boost for Renewables and the government’s new plans to allocate two percent of the country’s land to wind power can be seen as a milestone. Wünschel knows exactly how hard it has been to find land and get projects approved. Expansion is hindered by distance regulations, species protection and, needless to say, bureaucracy. Recently, 70 folders of paper were needed for the approval of a single wind turbine. The administrator involved in another project was sick. “We have been waiting for a reply for four weeks.” According to Wünschel, now it is a matter of pooling expertise and simplifying processes. What is needed is a set of swiftly adopted and implemented measures.

Wünschel is well acquainted with renewables and has been involved in them since day one. She grew up in Karlsruhe and Bonn, graduated in business studies from Bayreuth, worked for Bosch in Brussels, the recruiter Hays in London, as a trainee for Bayer in Singapore and lived in the Czech Republic for a while after joining utility company E.ON. She can still read Czech to this day.

At E.ON, she was introduced to renewables by Frank Mastiaux, the current boss of EnBW, which Wünschel describes as a start-up at the time. “There was a great deal of freedom to shape the company for two years.”

0,5 percent of land needed for photovoltaics

You notice how much Wünschel appreciates details when she talks about photovoltaics. In 2020, some two million plants produced 9.2 percent of Germany’s gross electricity. Be it on roofs or artificial lakes, the power of the sun can be captured almost anywhere. But if progress is really to be made, solar panels will also need to be placed on farmland and meadows. Space provides a boost, especially in photovoltaics. “A concrete land target for this would also be welcome,” says Wünschel. “0.5% of land would be needed.”

She has a message for farmers: Consider using solar panels instead of cultivating rapeseed, i.e. energy crops, from time to time. And, if possible, make double use of the land. In agricultural photovoltaics, panels are set up in a way that crops can still grow in fields. “In the ideal scenario,” says Wünschel, “the tractor is driven under panels.” RWE has launched projects in Italy and Spain. There will also be a trial in Germany in the near future.

The onshore business is small-scale and local. If it is to be successful, farmers and mayors will need to be swayed. RWE launched the Tailwind programme with this intention in mind. The Group plans to open seven more offices in the following locations in Germany: Berlin, Düsseldorf, the greater Heilbronn and Stuttgart area and the greater Munich and Augsburg area in the south where pent-up demand for renewables is greatest. Wünschel wants to recruit around 200 new employees, project developers and ‘land protectors,’ who have ‘a network of farmers and know who is interested in getting involved in wind power and photovoltaics.’

Wünschel refers to project development as a people business. RWE is trying to help people in the Rhenish mining area in particular; 9,000 of its approximately 20,000 employees work there. For instance, photovoltaic storage plants will be built on the site of the Inden and Garzweiler open-cast coal mines. Swords to ploughshares is the old motto of the peace movement. And when it comes down to energy policy, the idea is as follows: open-cast mines to solar farms. It doesn’t get more symbolic than that.

Wünschel has seen how it has shaken up the industry and especially E.ON and RWE. The companies agreed on an ‘asset swap’ in 2019. RWE acquired Renewables from E.ON and retained the Renewables division of RWE’s subsidiary Innogy, while Innogy's Grid and Retail business went to E.ON. For Wünschel, the transition period brought along three e-mail addresses and relocations: from E.ON to Innogy and from there to the RWE Campus. “When the asset swap was announced, it was an ‘aha’ moment for everyone,” she says.

Perhaps more of a moment of shock.

Either way, Wünschel says she was impressed by the RWE Executive Board’s approach at the time. “Not only did they focus on renewables, they also followed up their words with action.”

Dotzenrath's legacy is divided up

It was Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath who, as Head of RWE Renewables until autumn 2021, merged the Group divisions and created a single organisation. It appears to have been a success, despite the fact that Dotzenrath then moved on to a British oil company. In 2022, RWE intends to reposition itself and split Renewables into three companies: Offshore Global, Onshore America, Onshore Europe and Australia. Wünschel will become CEO of the third operating segment.

She says that restructuring was essential. Offshore is completely global, stretching from Taiwan to Europe and the USA. “It entails huge projects and almost all are being implemented with strategic partners.”

Onshore in Europe looks completely different. “I typically work on projects in the order of 20 megawatts. There are very many and they are very dispersed and local.” She will focus on 60 to 80 projects every year in the future. Omicron permitting, this involves a great deal of travelling. And she likes to spend a lot of time in the office. “I like the routine.” Even during the pandemic, Wünschel commuted from Duisburg, where she lives, almost every day. It was easy to reconcile this with her two teenage children at home.

Wünschel is optimistic about the new year. She hopes to make a difference and help push the transition to renewables in Germany and Europe. According to Wünschel, it’s like winning the lottery. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

 
 

Text by Florian Güßgen, © Handelsblatt Media Group GmbH & Co. KG. All rights reserved. 

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