Meet the agents of change: Frank Wouters

Frank Wouters is Senior Vice President of New Energy at Reliance Industries and Chairman of the MENA Hydrogen Alliance. Here, he discusses the game-changing technologies disrupting the clean energy sector

Through your roles at Masdar, IRENA and now Reliance Industries, you have been involved in some of the region’s most exciting global renewables projects. In your 14 years in the UAE, what milestones have shaped the path of renewables not only for the Emirates, but the world?

Many things have changed in the last 14 years. The most consequential change has been the mainstreaming of green energy. Back then, solar energy was still somewhat niche and expensive on a cost-per-unit basis compared to conventional energy. Today, it is the cheapest form of electricity and the default option.

The growth of green energy has led to cost reductions, which in turn has led to further growth. A fundamental characteristic of new energy – which is based on technology that has a learning rate baked into it – is the more you use it, the cheaper it gets.

Building on low-cost renewable electricity, we will see a similar growth path and cost decline of associated energy carriers such as hydrogen, ammonia, methanol and sustainable aviation fuel. 

As a region vulnerable to climate change, is there a true understanding and awareness of what this could mean for future generations and the way we live?

I think the honest answer is, not yet. There is still limited awareness about the fundamental challenges we face related to climate change.

The energy transition has started, but we need to speed up the process. We need to invest more money and put in more effort. We also need to change the way we use energy, and this applies to all of us – not just industry, but households and people, too. I don't think we need to compromise on quality of life, but I do think that we cannot keep doing what we are doing.

The fact that the largest growth in vehicle-type globally in the last 10 years has been SUVs – which few people really need or use off-road, and which emit far more carbon dioxide per kilometre than smaller vehicles – shows that awareness hasn't reached the level that it needs to be at.

How will clean hydrogen impact the energy mix in the next decade? What are the barriers to adoption and how are you working to overcome them?

Clean hydrogen has the potential to replace the essential molecules that are part of our energy system. Few people realise that 80 per cent of our energy system comprises coal, methane or diesel molecules. Green electricity makes up just 20 per cent.

We have learnt how to generate green electricity efficiently and this is now cheaper than electricity made from hydrocarbons or nuclear. As a result, we will use green electricity to a far greater extent in the future.

We cannot power everything this way, however, as storage and transmission becomes less practical and more expensive beyond 50 per cent of final energy covered with electricity.

The remaining 50 per cent is where hydrogen fits in. It is cheap to transport, especially in gas pipelines, much cheaper than electricity, and we can store it loss-free over seasons. Clean hydrogen is therefore an essential aspect of our energy system and a much bigger part of the mix than many people think.

There are barriers, however, including lack of awareness. We are still at the beginning of the learning rate in terms of cost, and we need to invest heavily in infrastructure such as ports and pipelines. Change is rarely easy, and the rate of change required is unprecedented. But the faster we change, the cheaper it will become overall.

The Middle East is blessed with great resources. How can it help to accelerate innovation and adoption of renewable energy solutions?

The resources in the Middle East are manifold. First, there are great natural resources such as land, abundant sunshine and, in many places, good wind. But there is also a thriving physical and intellectual infrastructure in the hydrocarbons industry, and the future energy sector is closely related to that.

As a result, the Middle East is a natural place for large-scale deployment, adoption and innovation of renewable energy solutions. In the last few years, the region has set new global benchmarks for large-scale deployment of renewable energy.

The lowest cost and largest solar and wind projects are currently here, and the region has shown the world how innovative deployment and project structuring can make renewables more affordable for everyone.

How are companies like Reliance Industries, associations like the MENA Hydrogen Alliance and other organisations disrupting the clean energy industry? 

In my dream, we will soon have an energy system that is mostly free of carbon. It will consist of 50 per cent green electricity and 50 per cent green molecules, based on green hydrogen and biomass. We need to have achieved this globally by 2050.

Reliance Industries Limited is working on a groundbreaking fully integrated approach, comprising an end-to-end manufacturing solution for green energy consisting of solar modules, batteries, carbon fibre and power electronics, as well as electrolysers and fuel cells, combined with an unprecedented large-scale deployment of these technologies.

This will provide for a range of new and clean energy solutions that will make Reliance’s energy system in India more secure, more cost-effective and a lot cleaner. Concurrently, Reliance is exploring opportunities elsewhere, realising that this is a global challenge and solutions made in India can make a difference elsewhere.

The MENA Hydrogen Alliance, meanwhile, brings together all major actors in the field and highlights the opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa to lead in the global energy transition. The region’s unprecedented potential for large-scale and cost-effective production of green hydrogen can spur innovation, help decarbonise the local and European energy system and create entire new industries in the region itself.

What are your hopes for COP28 in terms of discussion, action and outcomes? 

It is no secret that climate change is running away, and the global community agrees we urgently need increased action if we want to fix the world.

I sincerely hope that we can achieve real commitments at COP28 in terms of deploying the necessary capital for the energy and climate transition. We know what needs to be done. We know how much money it takes, and we know how the capital flows should be organised.

What we haven't been able to do is implement the agreed line of action. If COP28 can make real progress on that front, I think we will have achieved something.