Seeking New Frontiers in Green Energy
“When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers.” This famous Confucian saying that hangs in the office of CLP Chief Financial Officer Geert Peeters reflects the hunger for knowledge and experience in his three-decade career in the energy industry.
Whether it is building a power and desalination plant in the middle of a desert in the Middle East, running the finance function of a FTSE-100 company in London, or charting the way forward for CLP’s decarbonisation journey, Geert has never lost his passion for new challenges.
Out of Africa
Geert grew up in Kigali in Rwanda, where his parents were teachers in a missionary school. He remembers life in Africa as basic and sometimes challenging with the beautiful nature and kindness of the people as the main sources of happiness. He learnt from a young age that electricity was a precious resource. Air-conditioning was non-existent and his parents always kept candles in the house to avoid being plunged into darkness during frequent blackouts.
When he was 18, Geert returned to his home country of Belgium to study engineering. He started working as an engineer for a nuclear power company but later switched to banking for the world travel he yearned. After learning the ropes at a small bank, he joined GDF SUEZ for the international exposure that the company offered. “I wanted to do project financing because I was still an engineer at heart, and even more my dream was to one day be a project manager,” he says.
For the young professional with wanderlust, it was a dream job. Geert travelled the world for several years, visiting Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A high point came in 2001 when he was made the construction manager of a 2,000MW gas-fired generator in Abu Dhabi. For two years, he led a team to build a power plant as big as CLP's Castle Peak Power Station along with a huge desalination plant.
It was an intense experience, not least because the plants were deemed possible targets for terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “At the age of 38, I was the construction manager of this project in the desert with 3,000 people. It was the most enriching experience of my career,” Geert says.
Geert’s globe-trotting continued after Abu Dhabi. The adventurer in him took him to Houston, Mexico, and Paris before he landed in London to become the CFO of a FTSE-100 company. In 2014, he was named the CFO of CLP Holdings and he continues to seek out fresh challenges after moving to Hong Kong.
“In my life, one of the things that come back over and over is that I very much like to do new things,” he says.
Over the past four years, he and his team at CLP have tried out a variety of financial instruments from perpetual capital securities and export credits financing to the first green bonds in India – all with impressive results. Geert praises members of the Group Treasury team for their willingness to step out of their comfort zones and test new frontiers.
“Soon after I arrived here at CLP, I found a team of very professional colleagues and realised very quickly that there was not much that I needed to do or could do to help them do their jobs,” he says. “Maybe what we could do, however, was to be more open in pushing for new things.”
Pushing for change
With his wealth of experience, Geert knows that getting bankers to agree on any financing deal is never easy. So their initial push-back last year when CLP launched the Climate Action Finance Framework (CAFF) did not surprise him. Although the demand for green financing has soared as the industry switches to low-carbon energy sources, some financial institutions are reluctant to extend the green label to non-renewable projects.
That did not stop Geert and his team. In July 2017, CLP issued its first Energy Transition Bond under CAFF to finance the new gas-fired generating unit at Black Point Power Station.
“We did not want to give up,” he says. “So we came up with Energy Transition Bonds, and we explained to the banks that this was CLP's approach in reducing our carbon intensity, and it was very objective and transparent. Eventually we did it and it worked very well.”
According to Geert, CAFF’s well-structured mechanism, CLP’s excellent credit profile, and the company’s reputation of good governance were the main reasons why banks warmed to the idea and investors from around the world bought the bonds. Following the success of CAFF, Geert says the company is contemplating more issuances under the framework. Projects such as the landfill gas generation and the proposed LNG floating terminal are possibilities being considered.
Shareholder trust plays a fundamental role in enabling the company to pursue a climate strategy that embraces other low-carbon options in addition to renewables to reduce emissions, Geert believes.
“Our shareholders know where we are coming from. They saw how brave we were in 2007 in taking on a trajectory that would require us to reduce our carbon intensity but not our dividends. They follow and stay with us as long as we are truthful to our values,” he explains.
Geert’s desire for new experiences has driven him to take on challenge after challenge throughout his career. He is grateful to the managers who were willing to put their faith in him. Now as a member of the CLP management team himself, Geert feels it is his turn to make that happen for others.
“I have been lucky that several times in my career, bosses of mine have agreed to take a risk with me in trying something new,” he says. “It is now my job to provide those opportunities and give other people the confidence to try new things.”
Embracing a Low-carbon Lifestyle
Geert and his wife have embraced a low-carbon lifestyle in Hong Kong. They recycle their rubbish, use public transport to get around town, and spend holidays cycling and hiking. It is a long way from his childhood in Africa when solar power had not yet been introduced to his first exposure to the technology when he received a solar-powered watch to mark his first Communion.
Geert’s Hong Kong flat does not allow him to use solar panels (unlike his brother in Belgium), and he acknowledges that is the case for most of us living in Hong Kong. But he is convinced the concept will gain momentum with the help of the Feed-in Tariff and CLP promotion, and help open the door to the adoption of greener living in a more general sense.
“Even if they don’t contribute that much in volume, just seeing solar panels in Hong Kong will have a societal consequence,” he says, adding that his next wish is for marine vessels to switch to LNG. “Pushing for things like this is my contribution to the green energy movement.”
To learn more about CLP’s connection with society, please check out the latest issue of CLP.CONNECT.