An interview with Triodos IM's Director of Energy and Climate, Itske Lulof

Leaning into the climate challenge

Interview

Triodos IM’s Director of Energy and Climate discusses the journey that brought her to Triodos and shares her views on the role that Triodos IM could play in this sector.

Wake-up call

I grew up on the country side on a small farm, which my father had developed into an almost completely self-supporting household. The only thing we did not produce ourselves was the wheat to bake our daily bread. The interest in and the conviction of the importance of organic (bio-dynamic) farming and self-support date back to these forming years and have always stayed with me. That was in the 1980s, when Triodos started financing the first electricity generating small wind turbines in the Netherlands. It was also when the world was hit by the melt-down of the nuclear plant in Chernobyl.

Climate change wasn’t yet the issue that it is now, but acid rain and the Chernobyl accident got me worrying about our energy system and the effects of our energy consumption on our environment. Once a student, I therefore decided to follow a course on Energy and Environment, in addition to Russian and Eastern European studies. During this exciting multidisciplinary course, in 1988 or 1989, I heard for the first time of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), of which one of the members was my teacher. What I learned made my concern about our environment only grow bigger.

When I grew up, climate change wasn’t an issue yet. Back then, in the early 1980s, acid rain was the most pressing environmental problem. Thirty years on, climate change is the issue that lies at the root of many – if not most - of the world’s current challenges.
Itske Lulof

After my studies I held several different jobs. I worked four years in Russia on a project to combat industrial water pollution of the Volga River. Back in the Netherlands I joined DOEN Foundation, where I worked eight years and learned all aspects of financing and investing on the job. This experience brought me into the triangle I have been in ever since: energy and environment, Europe and finance. In 2005 I joined Triodos to set up Triodos Renewables Europe Fund. After a sidestep in 2007, living and working abroad, I rejoined Triodos in 2010 to become fund manager of Triodos Groenfonds.

This is the road that brought me to the position of Director of Energy and Climate with Triodos Investment Management.

Ambition

I have come to see energy and climate as an overarching theme and climate change as the issue that touches most of the world’s current challenges. All social and economic development will prove to be futile, if we do not or insufficiently address that one major challenge. At the same time, if we do not address social and economic issues, we will not be able to solve the climate change problem. This is also the kind of holistic thinking that is reflected in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are 17 individual goals, but also very closely connected, such as No Poverty, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action and Affordable and Clean Energy.

From being a pioneer in the 1980s, financing the first wind turbines in the Netherlands, we have grown into a recognised financier of clean energy projects. The Clean Energy Pipeline report shows that in 2016 we were Europe’s biggest renewable energy financier in terms of numbers of loans. At the same time, technological progress has been immense and the cost of renewable power generation, especially wind and solar, has come down considerably. Projects grow bigger - think of offshore, for example - but also smaller and more decentralized. As the energy transition is ongoing, the playing field is changing and so are we. While we will continue to finance small and medium-sized projects, we will increasingly get active in larger-scale projects and also in shaping financing for new, non-mainstream and mostly decentralised projects like energy efficiency or standardized rooftop solar financing. Think of our cooperation with longtime partner Solar Access and a Dutch brewer in the Netherlands and Italy and our new partner Zelfstroom offering leasing product for solar roof systems for households. And we are expanding our geographical scope to outside of Europe as well.

Emerging countries

Most of the projects we finance are in Europe. In the fight against climate change, however, the role of emerging countries is paramount. Given that in emerging countries access to energy and energy distribution facilities are often limited, however, these countries have the chance to skip the fossil fuel phase and move directly to renewable energy, without having to redesign and rebuild an existing system. This is exactly why we invest 20% of Triodos Groenfonds’ current volume of around 800 million euro in utility-based renewable energy generation projects in emerging countries. So far, we have built up a diversified portfolio of several wind, solar and hydro projects in countries like for example, Honduras, Georgia, Nepal and Kenya.

Our Inclusive Finance team is also considering financing more renewable energy projects, especially the smaller, decentralized and even off grid kind of projects where you can directly reach local communities and provide access to clean energy. They financed, for example, M-KOPA Solar in Kenya, a global leader of pay-as-you-go solar energy for off-grid customers. The company sells solar home systems to rural, low-income households in East Africa. This investment is a good example that the realization of how clean energy and having access to energy are strongly connected to other development goals is gaining ground.

Sharing our expertise

Another aspect where I think we can augment our role is knowledge sharing. With all the expertise we have acquired over the past 30 years, in particular with regard to the financing of smaller, non-mainstream projects, we are a valuable and interesting partner for other financiers and entrepreneurs with whom we can continue the energy transformation and take it further.

I am seeking ways how to increase sharing this knowledge and expertise inside the organization. For example: imagine a finance lab where we bring our expertise and where we develop tailor-made financing in cooperation with the microfinance institutions we finance, or even with our partners from the Global Alliance for Banking on Values. These are just some ideas that we are currently considering. Even if many practical details would need to be thought through, I think this could be a very interesting way to increase our impact further.

This, in short, is the direction I would like to go. Continuing as financer of small- and medium-sized mainstream and non-mainstream renewable energy projects, but also being an educator, an advisor and even an influencer, in emerging countries, but also in developed ones. Let’s not forget that for example in the Netherlands we still have a world to win, we still have a way to go in transforming our fossil-fuel-based energy system.

Photo credit: Pieter van den Boogerd

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