Who is Antonella Battaglini?

A brief interview with the Tällberg Foundation Global Leader and scientist connecting Europe to the smart grid

Antonella Battaglini, Founder and CEO of the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI) in Berlin, Germany. Ms. Battaglini is a scientist and a social entrepreneur, whose genius is to marry knowledge, technology and human power in politically practical ways, aimed at producing a sustainable electricity future for Europe. RGI aims to inspire as well as to help other regions to decarbonise their economies in practical, sustainable ways through increasing usage of renewable energy sources, thus combating climate change.

Ms. Battaglini is part of the 2015 class of Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders, along with Jamila Afghani, Jason Glaser, Martín von Hildebrand, and M.S. Swaminathan.

What is the smart grid?

Well this is actually a very complicated and controversial question. The smart grid is actually only one piece of the puzzle. When the discussion started about smart grids about a decade ago, most of the discussion was about smart meters. So there is still a lot of confusion among the community about what smart grids are. In reality, there are about 80 different definitions. Generally with ‘smart grids’ we mean a number of technologies that as a whole should enable us to facilitate the energy transition by allowing energy management, optimization and so on and so on.

Personally I think that smart grids are only one piece of what we need. In 2013 with my team at [Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research] I developed the term ‘super smart grid’, which was nothing else than a provocation — trying to go beyond this fragmentation, but also this divide between the energy community, with one part believing that it can only be large scale and the other strongly defending that ‘small is beautiful’ and this is what we are going to have. Reality today is showing that we probably need both for a number of years, I would say for the next two decades and we need solutions that allow for both to be deployed and implemented.

I say we need both because, of course if we didn’t have climate change the idea of ‘small is beautiful’ is very attractive, but because we have climate change — so we have a time pressure — we need solutions for the world regions where renewables are not as abundant as in other areas. So we need a solution that fits all because climate change doesn’t have borders.

How do you deal with ingrained attitudes toward energy production?

First of all, I’m very stubborn. So if you want to get rid of me, it takes some effort. The work of RGI is based on the awareness of all the actors. That you need to have public acceptance if you want to build the right infrastructure. And if you want to have this energy transition, without public acceptance, it’s very difficult.

With the engineers it is really worth it to go them and ask questions. ‘Why is it like this? What can’t it be different?’ And the engineers traditionally have the attitude to say, ‘It is what is. I know the answers. Just take it for good.’ But my technique is to say, ‘You need to explain it to me. And, you need to explain it to me with words that I can understand. And, if I don’t understand it, then that means all the others don’t understand it either. And, that is not good.’ And, this has been at the core of RGI: explaining. And while they’re explaining these people actually realize that, indeed, it could be different. And so, together we explore how it can be different.

We’ve done a lot of work on transparency. We say if you want to be credible you need to be transparent and you need to take a position. Very often industry players find it difficult to take a position. They say, ‘We are neutral. Especially technology neutral.’ But I always challenge everybody by saying that neutrality doesn’t mean not to have an opinion, and having an opinion is important if you want to be credible.

At the end of the day most of the people are really well intentioned. They want to be good. They want to solve problems. It’s just that sometimes they don’t know how to do it or they don’t have the strength.

Where does your drive come from?

I think about the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to roll up a mountain a big stone, a boulder, just to see it falling down again. And Camus, Albert Camus writes about him that actually we should consider Sisyphus a happy person because it’s doing that makes him happy. And I think for me, it’s very similar.

I have a lot of colleagues, especially at Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, that they want to save the world. I think it’s not in our ability or range to save the world, but we can definitely do something.

I understand the impacts of climate change. I have two kids. I am fully aware that their life will be harder than my life. Not just because of climate change, but because of peace and order in the world — the world is a complicated placed and it’s going to become more complicated in the future. So, whatever we do to ease and safeguard our only hope that we have — planet earth, this is my motivation.

An interview with Antonella Battaglini in Stockholm on November 11, when he was in town as one of the Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders 2015.

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