"Spain can be the new European Persian Gulf of renewables"

INTERVIEW MAARTEN WETSELAAR Chief Executive Officer Cepsa/ The executive believes that "green energy is Spain's greatest economic opportunity", which he compares to what the Arab countries have had with oil.

Miguel Á. Patiño
Special Envoy in Davos (Switzerland) Maarten Wetselaar (Leiden, Netherlands, 1968) has just completed his first year as Cepsa's chief executive. He has had time to start speaking Spanish and to give the company a strategic turnaround. And above all, to see Spain from a very different business perspective.

Wetselaar, with a professional career that has taken him to work in more than thirty countries, now sees the Spanish market as a real ugly duckling turned into a swan.

"The main challenge today is that Spain imports almost all the energy it consumes," he says with overwhelming realism in an interview with EXPANSIÓN during the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he attended for the first time as Cepsa's chief executive.

"This implies not only dependence on others, but we pay a lot, and the trade balance is in deficit." In addition, "energy is the second largest cost for companies, after personnel." That is the problem, but also the opportunity.

"If we produce accessible, sustainable and cheap energy, it is a great asset to attract new industries and boost the economy," he adds. "For all these reasons, I believe that green hydrogen and renewables are Spain's greatest economic opportunity for the coming decades, which can facilitate not only energy autonomy, but also exports," he says with conviction.

Mubadala reinvents itself

To the extent that Spain, he adds, can "become the new Persian Gulf of renewables in Europe", in clear reference to the fact that Spain can extract incalculable value from green energy, as the countries of the Persian Gulf, the world's main hydrocarbon producers, have obtained for decades from oil and gas.

Wetselaar's statement is no coincidence. Cepsa is controlled by Mubadala, the investment fund of the Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi, one of the main hydrocarbon producers in the Persian Gulf. Now it is reinventing itself.

"A clear advantage is the geopolitical situation of Spain, its ports, its infrastructure, as a point of interconnection with Africa and Latin America," says Wetselaar.

Spain leads

"What used to be a disadvantage, due to the lack of infrastructure to import Russian gas, has now become an advantage." Spain "can be the leading carriage of the energy transition on the European continent. We can lead the production of renewables," he insists.

But to do so, "we must act quickly, decisively and encourage the planned investments". A "national agenda" is needed to mobilize all the players and all the administrations. "It makes no sense for billions of euros to be left pending administrative authorization," he explains.

This is a direct allusion to the bureaucratic slowness in approving projects such as renewables, or subsidies such as Perte (the vehicle created by the government to channel European Next Generation funds).

"Other countries, such as the United States, have already seen the opportunity and have set to work nimbly and with a lot of resources," he says, referring to the Biden administration's IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) plan, based on tax credits rather than direct subsidies.

For Wetselaar, renewables are more than just an economic engine for Spain. It is his chance to get back on the right side of history.

The biggest revolution

Experts consider this to be humanity's biggest energy revolution. "I would say yes in terms of size, because today we have a global energy system that is many times larger than what we had 100 years ago."

In addition to size, "this revolution is differential because of the speed at which it is being implemented and because of the global awareness of the need to accelerate the energy transition."

In the first energy transition [fossil fuels] "the alternative to no transition was lower economic growth and lower standards of living, now the alternative is to stop protecting the planet". But "the goal of the current energy transition is to maintain our day-to-day way of life with cheap, clean energy, while avoiding an impact on the environment."

"Energy prices will be high."

A survey by the business lobby European Round Table of Industrialists, among the top CEOs of large European multinationals, assumed that cheap electricity prices, as they were for decades before the war in Ukraine, would never return. Maarten Wetselaar is realistic about forecasting. "In the short and medium term I do agree, but by 2030 I think that renewable energy will allow a drop." Therefore, "we must accelerate the energy transition and the change of the current system, boosting investments in new technologies such as green hydrogen or advanced biofuels," he insists. One consequence of the Russian war, Wetselaar recalls, is that the European Union "has come out stronger". It has shown itself to be "united in its response to the crisis and is taking measures in a much more agile manner than in previous crises. For example, by promoting "collaboration and cooperation". The signing of the agreement to build a "hydroproduct [hydrogen pipeline] between Spain, Portugal and France is an example of measures that we must promote for Europe to increase its energy independence," says the CEO of Cepsa, the second largest oil company in Spain after Repsol. Cepsa has stepped on the accelerator in renewables. Yesterday, for example, it announced that it will develop three photovoltaic plants in Ciudad Real with 400 megawatts, which will involve an investment of 280 million.

Within renewable energy, the focus is now on hydrogen. "Green hydrogen [produced with clean energies] represents the great opportunity of the energy transition," he says. "It is the main energy vector to solve in the future the sustainable mobility of heavy traffic, maritime and air transport."

I believe that "it is going to be a greater energy source than natural gas, which it will eventually replace. It is a great alternative "for 50% of the energy consumed today, which is very difficult to electrify".

In all these sectors, green hydrogen "is the best option for decarbonization. Nuclear energy and renewables "are going to supply the electrical part of the system, the other 50%, so they are totally complementary".

Global career

The Re- Power EU legislative package (the basis of Next Generation) has a "significant regulatory structure and funds with a lot of potential". The challenge is to "implement it in an agile way". "It is not only to favor subsidies, but also to facilitate permitting for renewables." It is "a big global race and if we do not act in an agile way, Spain may lose its clear advantages from the start".

Partnership with BeGas, Isuzu, Herko, Buxo and Socage

As its CEO Maarten Wetselaar explains, Cepsa is adding alliances as a formula for growth. Yesterday, it sealed an agreement with BeGas to promote the decarbonization of professional urban transport, such as buses, delivery vehicles, waste collection trucks and other municipal services through the use of autobiogas. According to the companies, with this agreement, they will promote the manufacture and use of bioautogas or biopropane and other products of renewable origin in professional urban transport, in addition to promoting the use of engines 100% powered by these energies.

Currently, heavy urban vehicles account for 10% of the fuel consumption of the total professional transport fleet. The agreement forms an alliance that aims to integrate the entire value chain of this sector (engine manufacturers, vehicle manufacturers, energy producers and consumers). So far, nine partners from the public and private sectors have already joined this integrating alliance, such as vehicle and machinery manufacturers Isuzu, Herko, Buxo Trucks, Socage, Aebi Schmidt Ibérica and Revenant, as well as Urbaser and Sulo, which have fleets of this type.