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Innovation is the way to overcome the energy industry’s crisis

Solar impulse plane photo

By Mehdi Hajjam: The energy transition will not happen because it is not a transition. It will be a fast, brutal and systemic revolution. An exponential curve. That was the key takeaway at the Accenture roundtable held on March 21st in Paris.

“No public policy of any kind has ever provoked the major changes that affected our societies”, according to Thierry LEPERCQ, Senior Vice President in charge of Innovation at ENGIE, who was one of the speakers invited by Accenture to discuss these evolutions, together with Actility, Enedis and Suez, among others.

“Do you believe that at the beginning of the 20th century in New York City, when horse manure was the number one public health and environmental issue, a regulation could have swept away horse carriage usage to replace it by motor cars in less than 13 years? It is innovation and its fast adoption among citizens at large that made it possible. No one at the time thought such a dramatic change was possible. It will be the same with energy today, and no one seems to quite realize it yet.”

The energy industry is facing a major crisis nowadays. “Crisis, or κρίσις in Greek, is the action to decide”, explains the Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand PICCARD. He was the VIP guest of Accenture who concluded the morning debates on the role of innovation, public policy, and market mechanism in the energy sector.

“Talking about energy transition, inducing a slow linear change of the industry feared by market incumbents, means resisting the crisis rather than accepting it. But crises do have benefits: they make us look for the missing tools to do better in the future. […] And if you accept the crisis, you embark on a spectacular adventure! If you refuse this adventure, you stay in crisis,” the explorer said in front of around 100 energy consultants and professionals.


Adventure is flowing in Bertrand PICCARD’s blood. Grandson and son of explorers, he was the first aeronaut to circle the world in the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon in 1999. He also co-developed and co-piloted Solar Impulse, the first solar plane to fly around the globe in 2015.

With such a life experience, he is bound to know a bit about crisis and innovation. The challenge with Solar Impulse was to combine a wingspan of an A340-500 airplane with the weight of a car. No one ever did that before, and no one in the energy industry or in the aviation for that matter would help him overcome this daunting task, judging it impossible to achieve. 

“Innovation never comes from inside. I would certainly have succeeded one to two years before had I not tried to convince these industry specialists. I ended up asking to a Swiss shipyard if they would build the wings we needed because they didn’t know it was “impossible” to make wings 10 times as light as a sheet of printing paper. Knowing that Switzerland has no access to seas but has won the America’s cup twice, one has to believe that Swiss shipyards must indeed possess extraordinary qualities!” tells PICCARD.

He insists that innovation is all about exploring unknown fields, without paradigm nor theory.

“You have to be humble enough to admit that you don’t know where to search in order to become free and be able to look everywhere.” Using an aeronautical metaphor, he continues: “One needs to rise up in this process, and change altitude. When you keep your altitude constant, you are a prisoner of the wind, of its speed and direction. The atmosphere is made of different layers, and you need to change altitude to change direction. You need to move from a two-dimensional world to a three-dimensional one”.

How does one rise with a balloon, he then asked the audience? “You need to drop ballast. Innovation is not about having ideas, but rather getting rid of certainties… Which is hard, because we are taught to stick to things rather than get rid of some of them”.

The explorer regrets that today’s paradigm is the fear of the unknown, rather than taking risks which is the drive of the pioneering spirit. 

“We all need to learn how to move from courage which requires a lot of energy, to trust. Trust comes from the ability to face crises head on, or even to look for them. That is how you start writing your own story, which is the most crucial thing in the end”.

The energy revolution is thus for risk takers to embrace. At Actility, we embarked long ago on this adventure.

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