Spotlight on Yana Popkostova

Founding director of the European Centre for Energy and Geopolitical Analysis, expert reviewer of the IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C designated as the EUI’s Young Policy Leaders Fellow and World Energy Council’s 35 under 35 Future Energy Leaders.


Why the energy sector? Can you tell us about the journey into your field?

I have always been inexplicably drawn to geopolitics and factors of influence and competition in the big powers game. And no other sector is as intimately related to and intertwined with the notion of foreign policy and interdependence between countries as energy. So, this is to my infatuation with energy policy — I wanted to and still pursue to fathom a deeper grasp of how the energy sector and the fast pace of change and volatility of the markets affect global politics.

My journey into the sector per se must have been ignited by a childhood of frequent power outages. Growing up in post-communist Bulgaria I accumulated a fascinating set of memories of turbulent times and socio-economic and political upheavals, but one thing somehow stuck on my mind — a cabinet drawer full with candles handy to reach when the blackout occurs. And this is extraordinary when I think about this now. So the question “why?” has been an important push factor. During my studies, I focused on policy and regulation. For my thesis at LSE, I chose the perennially topical and ever-fascinating issue of the energy interdependency between the EU and Russia. Upon graduation, I knew this is the sector where I am meant to thrive. After a few years in the European Parliament, I joined the European Climate Foundation’s Energy Strategy Center. Those were challenging but also empowering times for my holistic understanding of power sector resilience, decarbonisation and energy infrastructure. I went on to consult on a few projects and established my own think-tank to allow focused attention on developing solutions to barriers that might thwart the low-carbon transition.

What would you consider a major achievement of your career?

I established the European Centre for Energy and Geopolitical Analysis [ECEGA.EU] entirely by myself and for less than two years it has achieved significant strides, engaged with compelling work and left an imprint on the fabrics of energy policy and politics. It is an innovative fusion between an energy think-tank and a consulting firm, that serves to empower policy-makers and business executives to better exploit green growth and low-carbon energy potentials. While rigorous analytical process underpins ECEGA’s work, the focus is on solutions — feasible, implementable and progressive.

What was the trigger for this? Can you tell us more about ECEGA?

Well, firstly, make a difference. My experience in the European energy policy incubator exposed me to the deficiency of the system: the slow pace of energy reform and its dragging consequences. I observed the inefficiency of siloed thinking which considers energy policy in isolation, without assessment of the roles of the private sector, technological innovation and geopolitical dynamics. I witnessed the paralyses caused by disintegrated national objectives and grew frustrated by the focus on pricing as the driving force to decarbonisation in complete defiance of obstacles related to poor externalities valuation and law enforcement failures.

I wanted to address the real problems ahead, and provide holistic and workable solutions, not scenarios on paper but rather armour to forge implementation. I wanted to Analyse and Evaluate, but also to Solve and Empower, and this became the driving force behind everything ECEGA does.

And secondly, I felt that the rise of RES, the fast pace of digitalisation and interconnectedness of energy, the advent of new transnational foras dedicated to greening our society, economy, finance would impact the established energy alliances and inter-dependencies and overhaul the power relations between countries, regions and stakeholders creating potentially new tensions and security fissures. ECEGA explores the changing geopolitics of energy — issues related to the security of and competition for raw materials; the changing power [as]symetries amongst countries, with RE emboldening whole continents and /or imploding previously fossil resource-rich countries. The geopolitical of energy is a fascinating subject to examine intellectually and a primordial one to understand politically as it belies important risks and opportunities. ECEGA designs mechanisms to anticipate these trends and maintain Europe’s security and soft power.

I also focused on building a company with a strong mission and leadership purpose to help policymakers and business executives work for the best interest of future generations. I am unapologetically proud of ECEGA and hope to be able to scale it up further.

What has been your favorite project?

I have a particular penchant for my current work. I run a project on transnational energy governance and focus particularly on the Governance of the EU’s Energy Union [Proposal for a Regulation]. This is a crucial file, both in terms of achieving the Union’s climate and energy ambitions but also as an unparalleled illustration of the cohort of challenges associated with transnational governance. I deem it as the most vital piece of legislation within the Clean Energy Package.

What are some key issues that must be addressed in the field?

The energy sector is incredibly versatile and there are disruptive developments across the value chain. Just for the past 5 years we have seen a dramatic increase of RES penetration and cost reduction, EV adoption and changing patterns of consumer behavior, sparked by favorable government policies, strong economics and increased environmental consciousness. Hence, we need to focus attention on what would be the new models of government regulation, business, and private-public-scientific partnerships that would both accelerate this trend and avoid dangerous or unequally distributed outcomes. Without a resilient governance structure, the transformation of our energy systems and solving the energy access and justice challenges will falter. Also, simple quests such as who will pay for the central grid when more consumers opt-in for distributed and digitalised solution or how to ensure energy transactions are secured against cyber threats [40% of which are directed at the energy sector] need to be tackled. The World Energy Council is paving the way for exploring Blockchain for the energy industry for example, and the potential is fascinating.

Another issue I think needs more attention is the vast potential of CCS, we have been talking about it for years but no actor (be in transnational such as the EU or national, such as individual country and/ or region) has taken the baton to lead developments on this vector and it can prove game-changing in our efforts to remain below 1.5 degrees and avoid dangerous climate change. Further, the focus on energy efficiency needs to encompass the entire value chain [both consumption and production processes]. This will be the next big horizon for the oil and gas sector in terms of adaptation to the carbon-contained reality and using big data to achieve productivity gains and reduce wastage.

What does the future of the energy sector hold?

I am realistically optimistic about the future of the sector. Decentralisation and digitalisation would be the new paradigms in the sector, and the traditional players who have benefited from somehow privileged access to the consumer would need to change their business models to adapt to this new reality. Distributed generation would enable energy access for millions, and in Africa, India and China leapfrogging to decentralised energy solutions will be an important lever to development and to solve basic human rights and justice notions [because access to energy is both a human need and a human right some environmental lawyers would argue]. Nevertheless, these dynamics belie important challenges as to regulation, balancing and system resilience which we already spoke about.

The RES penetration and cost-competitiveness will likely accelerate and the green mainstreaming will become the new norm of policy and social change. The changing geopolitics of [renewable] energy should be better examined though as identified previously. In terms of oil I am not as bearish as most analysts as to the prospects ahead. The end of oil is not imminent, the industry will and is being disrupted by the greening of policy and capital flows but maturing of fields, increasing population pressures and growing oil-dependent industries will maintain oil demand. This will provide the necessary time for traditional oil giants to restructure, consolidate and increase efficiency and effectiveness.

For Europe, energy regulatory, system and infrastructure modernisation and innovation dynamics will continue to dominate the policy discourse and business practice and I am confident we will manage to steer the low-carbon transition fast forward. One thing is primordial for me to address urgently thought — notably the elephant in the room — energy poverty which affects one out of 10 Europeans and is especially concentrated in CEECs. Feminisation of poverty, especially at an older age is also an observed phenomenon. It is our moral imperative to tackle the issue in the most affluent of continents but also it makes business sense: high levels of energy poverty imprison policy-makers at national level in a vicious circle of fossil fuel dependence, regulated pricing and protection of polluting industries which all inhibit the energy system modernization and the alignment of national policies and instruments around green growth, thus creating a CATCH22 situation of sorts. So tackling energy poverty is a key issue ahead and it is a pillar in my current work on governance.

What advice would you give other women who are thinking about working in the energy sector?
Persevere! I am very optimistic because intelligence and impact are not gendered notions and while there is still a path to be made in terms of eradicating some widespread stereotypes, I am positive that the fossil thinking will eventually be overtaken by gender mainstreaming of energy policy and practice. But no other field is as fascinating and as in need of creative and confident minds as energy!

The energy transition and the changes of energy policy and systems thinking would overhaul the way we use, generate, transport energy and this would impact our society in an unprecedented ways. Simultaneously with this change, the avalanche of gender equality and women empowerment has started rolling.

It is your responsibility to take a position and lead both transformations. Empower yourself with learning, exploring and exchanging on energy issues, then persevere to enter the industry and trail-blaze both sectoral change and women ascent.
Who has been the most influential mentor throughout your career?

Mentor as a figure who would somehow protect, push-forward and advise me, I never had. And this is not necessarily a bad thing because it teaches one perseverance, resilience and ambition which are always handy in life. Man is what he makes of himself and I made sure I make of myself someone I like and respect. But the key driver of my career has been a burning inner drive, fierce grit and hard work.

In terms of inspiration — my mother has been a great shaper and guide. She has nurtured ambition, self-esteem and visionary thinking in me in a soft and very impactful manner. She has also shaped me as a principled individual with a strong moral compass and responsibility to her work. My husband is the other big shaper in my life — his innate sense of confidence and success, positive outlook and integrity have always served as my pillar of stability and ascent.

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