Viennese vision: How Austrian electricity can lead the way towards a decarbonised Europe


When it comes to decarbonising power, Austria is leading the way. But Herbert Lechner, deputy managing director at the Austrian Energy Agency and a member of the advisory board at Electrify Europe, argues that there is still work to be done – and Europe as a whole should watch and learn.

Austria has long played an important role in driving European development. From Mozart, Klimt and Wittgenstein in arts and philosophy, to Schumpeter, Doppler and Freud in the sciences; this small country has punched above its weight for centuries – with Vienna in particular staking a real claim to be the continent’s cultural capital.

This leadership shows no signs of stopping. Austria is right at the forefront of one of the most pressing issues facing Europe today: decarbonising power.

Other states should sit up and take notice, as Austrian solutions will be Europe’s blueprint to the challenges it faces in building its own sustainable power infrastructure.

A balanced diet

For Austria, the decarbonisation of power entails three major strategic initiatives. First, it aims to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Next, it aims to decarbonise the gas supply – initially by adding biogases into the mix and later switching to hydrochain and synthetic gases. Finally, it will increasingly focus on supply-side ‘energy intelligence’ – the use of technology to enable the smart grid, with consumers generating and trading their own energy, independent of the big utilities.

The country is making good progress. Indeed, with somewhere between 60 and 70% of its electricity already being sourced from renewables, it’s a world leader. And there is much that those states that are lagging behind on their journey to decarbonisation can learn from the Austrian approach.

Most important is the fact that, much more than other leading nations (such as Germany), the Austrian government has provided a robust long-term framework for the integration of a balanced diet of renewable generation – not simply relying on one or two sources but deftly adding less popular solutions like hydropower into the mix.

But, just like going on a diet, the first part’s the easy bit. It’s when you want to lose those last few pounds that the going gets tough. And with the low-hanging fruit having been picked, reaching the ripest rewards will require Austria to really stretch itself. Suddenly those 2030 targets begin to look rather ambitious.

Stretching and flexing

To get that last 30% or so over the line, Austria’s utilities will have to work hard and innovate like never before.

The main challenge at this stage isn’t about building huge amounts of additional renewable capacity onto the grid. It’s all about flexibility. Austria’s diverse mix of power sources sets it off on the right foot in this respect; if the wind drops, solar or hydro are ready to shoulder the burden.

But the real key to long-term success will be a switch away from a focus on the provision of power in favour of the supply of services. Facilitating the market upon which ‘prosumers’ will generate, store and sell electricity to each other – and helping to even out the lumps in supply so that total capacity becomes less important than its being used efficiently.

The utilities will, of course, still play an important part in ensuring security of supply, but they will no longer have a monopoly on the generation of energy and will need to find new roles to ensure their continued survival.

There are a number of competitors, waiting in the wings. From small start-ups to the tech giants, and even those from the automotive industry and wider sectors – businesses across the spectrum have realised that power is the platform upon which we’re building the future. And they want to be a part of it.

A healthy attitude

For now, Austria’s utilities remain the best-placed to deliver this new world of smart energy services – covering everything from gadgets and gizmos to electrified heat and automated electric vehicles. But they mustn’t be complacent. Instead, power providers will need to switch to an innovation mindset.

That’s no mean feat. It means cultural change across the board. From the post room to the boardroom, all those working in the electricity value chain must concentrate their efforts on finding both better ways of working and developing entirely new products, services and business models to take us into a fully decarbonised future – and ensure their survival within it.

For many companies across the continent, this will mean learning from Austria. Because, while it has yet to answer all the questions – and probably won’t by 2030 – the country has a proud tradition of leading European culture change. A healthy energy diet should be no exception.

That’s the thinking behind events such as Electrify Europe – because cultural change on this scale is one of the most difficult things a business can attempt – let alone an entire industry. People will need to pull together, to share their experiences, insights and ideas and develop newer and better ones.

That’s why Electrify Europe will bring together more than 400 companies from across the entire supply chain, with discussions that have been carefully curated to provide attendees with the knowledge and tools they need to shape the power industry’s future. Because sharing this knowledge and these tools is the only way that power providers across the continent will be able to stop surviving and start thriving.

This year’s Electrify Europe conference and exhibition will be held in Vienna between 19-21 June 2018.