Vin­cent de Ri­vaz on leav­ing EDF

The boss of EDF En­ergy is about to step down af­ter 16 years at the helm but the best is still to come, he tells Jil­lian Am­brose

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page - Vin­cent de Ri­vaz

This quiet edge of windswept coast­line on the west of Scot­land should be empty. Here, the Hun­ter­ston B nu­clear power plant has stood for over 40 years, silently gen­er­at­ing enough elec­tric­ity to power 1.7m homes. It was due to shut down last year. In­stead, it will run for al­most a decade longer than first thought.

Al­most 1,000 peo­ple are on the EDF En­ergy site less than a week af­ter an un­in­ter­rupted 495-day run, the long­est of the plant’s 41-year life. One man, Vin­cent de Ri­vaz, is here to say good­bye. He too knows a thing or two about con­found­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

“Walk­ing around this plant, I was very moved,” De Ri­vaz says later.

“I was above the re­ac­tor and could see three or four col­leagues work­ing; as al­ways very fo­cused, very calm and very or­gan­ised. Ev­ery­thing was tidy, spot­less, mag­nif­i­cent. It was beau­ti­ful,” he says, trail­ing off.

Af­ter 16 years as EDF chief ex­ec­u­tive, De Ri­vaz is due to step down from the com­pany in a mat­ter of weeks. He will leave the helm to Si­mone Rossi, af­ter a ten­ure in which he built one of Bri­tain’s largest en­ergy com­pa­nies amid one of the most tu­mul­tuous and po­lit­i­cally in­flamed pe­ri­ods for the en­ergy in­dus­try.

But in­evitably, De Ri­vaz will be re­mem­bered for one of the big­gest, most ex­pen­sive and con­tro­ver­sial power projects in Bri­tish his­tory: Hink­ley Point C. To­day, there is lit­tle to sug­gest the grit and dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion for which he be­came known in the in­dus­try.

De Ri­vaz is vis­it­ing each of EDF En­ergy’s 20 sites and of­fices to de­liver a three-fold part­ing mes­sage to his em­ploy­ees: one of thanks, a call to have pride in what has been achieved, and to have con­fi­dence in the fu­ture.

“These are not bad mes­sages for my­self ei­ther,” he says.

“In a sense it is very im­por­tant to leave feel­ing that you are not ir­re­place­able.

“If that were the case it would mean you haven’t em­pow­ered your team or given them a vi­sion. It’s good to say ‘get on with the job’. And any­way, 16 years? It’s kind of a record,” he smiles. It was in 2002 that De Ri­vaz moved to Bri­tain from his na­tive France as chief ex­ec­u­tive of the com­pany that was to be­come EDF En­ergy.

It was an en­ergy in­dus­try dom­i­nated by re­gional mo­nop­oly sup­ply boards and a sys­tem run mostly on coal-fired power.

The roll-out of re­new­able en­ergy had yet to be­gin in earnest. The so-called Big Six were yet to be formed, much less chal­lenged by the cur­rent crop of up­start min­nows.

Within his first six months in Bri­tain the com­pany tripled in size. He merged the Edf-owned elec­tric­ity boards of Lon­don, the South East and South West of the coun­try. At a stroke EDF En­ergy be­came a 12,000-strong com­pany with the ca­pac­ity to gen­er­ate 6pc of the UK’S elec­tric­ity and sup­ply 7.9m cus­tomer homes and busi­nesses.

The group’s bur­geon­ing nu­clear am­bi­tions were ig­nited just a few years later when Tony Blair, prime min­is­ter at the time, put nu­clear power gen­er­a­tion back on the agenda “with a vengeance”, vow­ing that Bri­tain would build new plants to power its low-car­bon am­bi­tions.

EDF En­ergy ac­quired Bri­tish En­ergy’s fleet of nu­clear re­ac­tors for £12.5bn in 2008 to be­come the big­gest elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tor in the UK. As part of the deal, EDF En­ergy set out plans to build four new nu­clear re­ac­tors in Bri­tain at two of the ex­ist­ing Bri­tish En­ergy sites, Hink­ley and Sizewell.

In many ways, De Ri­vaz has re­mained the cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist of the Hink­ley saga, while four suc­ces­sive prime min­is­ters, nine sec­re­taries of state and four EDF chair­men have played sup­port­ing roles. A fi­nal act cameo by Chi­nese state-backed nu­clear de­vel­op­ers helped bring the drama to a close.

“The fact that I have stayed so long has been a mes­sage of sta­bil­ity and cred­i­bil­ity, to the UK Gov­ern­ment but also in France. It was very im­por­tant for all stake­hold­ers,” he says.

The Som­er­set-based pro­ject was aban­doned by pro­ject part­ner Cen­trica in 2013, months be­fore the deal was sub­jected to EU state-aid scru­tiny, which lasted al­most a year. In the end, a £2bn loan guar­an­tee from the Trea­sury and an es­ti­mated £6bn in­vest­ment from China Gen­eral Nu­clear in 2015 helped win the care­ful ap­proval of Theresa May last year.

“It’s never easy. You have bumpy days, bumpy weeks.” He pauses. “Bumpy years. How do you stay on track when your boat is rocked by events? It’s only pos­si­ble when you have a clear vi­sion of where you want to go.”

De Ri­vaz has steered the com­pany, slowly, to­wards this vi­sion. EDF En­ergy’s ex­ist­ing nu­clear fleet has in­creased its out­put by 50pc from its days un­der Bri­tish En­ergy con­trol. Last year, it re­ported a record level of gen­er­a­tion de­spite the age of the plants. Around 400 miles south of Hun­ter­ston, work­ers swarm the Hink­ley Point C site to bring this pro­ject to fruition too.

The £20.3bn pro­ject will be one of the big­gest in­vest­ments in power gen­er­a­tion in decades, and pro­vide over 3GW of low-car­bon power to the grid. But to say that Hink­ley has its crit­ics is an un­com­fort­able un­der­state­ment. The inevitable ire of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists was eas­ily matched by those who be­lieved that the costs of the pro­ject would sad­dle bill pay­ers with higher fees. That EDF’S other new nu­clear projects in Europe have run over time and bud­get has only served to deepen con­cerns.

Un­der an agree­ment be­tween the Gov­ern­ment and EDF En­ergy, ironed out in 2013, Hink­ley is guar­an­teed to earn £92.50 for ev­ery megawatt-hour (MWH) of en­ergy pro­duced through a com­bi­na­tion of whole­sale mar­ket prices and a levy on con­sumer en­ergy bills. At the time, the Gov­ern­ment said this would re­quire top-up pay­ments to­talling £6bn via en­ergy bills but this spi­ralled to £30bn and, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est fig­ures, could top £50bn over the life of the plant.

Is Hink­ley Point C a good deal? It is a ques­tion that has sparked po­lit­i­cal de­bates, par­lia­men­tary en­quiries, au­dit re­ports and head­lines. It is also a ques­tion that has pro­voked in­dig­na­tion and red-faced ir­ri­tabil­ity from De Ri­vaz in the past. To­day, he is un­ruf­fled. “Peo­ple say the deal is too gen­er­ous. Others say the pro­ject is too risky,” he smiles wryly.

“In the UK peo­ple tell me we have se­cured too good a deal. In France, they ask if I’m sure it’s a good deal for EDF be­cause of the risks. To both of them, I say yes, I’m sure.”

De Ri­vaz ad­mits that there were cer­tainly dif­fi­cult mo­ments, but avoids a ques­tion on whether there have been doubts that the Hink­ley pro­ject would move ahead.

“If you are blind to the crit­ics you are in dan­ger,” he says, by way of re­sponse. “I have al­ways been con­scious of the chal­lenges and crit­ics and dif­fi­cul­ties. And I have al­ways taken them into ac­count, be­cause if you are not ad­dress­ing them it could jeop­ar­dise the pro­ject. In a sense it was a jour­ney of dif­fi­cult steps.”

Hink­ley may prove to be his legacy, but it is one De Ri­vaz says he will be proud to have.

“It is a pro­ject which is en­sur­ing the con­ti­nu­ity of this busi­ness, and the con­tin­ued suc­cess of the busi­ness,” he says. “It is hap­pen­ing. We will pro­duce 7pc of the elec­tric­ity that this coun­try needs for the next 60 years. It will prove to be a de­ci­sive pro­ject for new nu­clear in the UK and Europe. I have no doubt that this legacy is a pos­i­tive one. It is hugely pos­i­tive.”

But per­haps sur­pris­ingly, De Ri­vaz does not con­sider Hink­ley to be his tough­est chal­lenge. His tough­est years, he says, were those in which con­sumer trust in the in­dus­try was at its low­est level. A bun­gled billing sys­tem over­haul trig­gered a wave of cus­tomer com­plaints against the com­pany and drove staff morale to rock bot­tom lev­els too. The Big Six back­lash was bru­tal. Along­side other en­ergy bosses De Ri­vaz weath­ered a vol­ley of gov­ern­ment threats to cap en­ergy sup­ply tar­iffs, an in-depth probe from the reg­u­la­tor and com­pe­ti­tion au­thor­ity, and an as­sault from new ri­val sup­pli­ers into an in­creas­ingly crowded and com­pet­i­tive re­tail mar­ket.

“But we’ve turned that around. De­spite all these new en­trants EDF En­ergy has main­tained its mar­ket share. What we have done, what I have done, in ad­dress­ing the is­sue of trust on the cus­tomer side has earned us the right to in­no­vate in an in­creas­ingly dig­i­tal world,” he says.

Again, it is about en­sur­ing a sus­tain­able fu­ture for the com­pany he has built. And De Ri­vaz is clear that tap­ping the boom in in­ter­net-en­abled home sys­tems, so­lar pan­els and bat­ter­ies will play a key part of the fu­ture for the in­dus­try.

“Those that are go­ing to in­no­vate will be the win­ners. If you don’t in­no­vate, you die,” he says.

Trans­form­ing the firm’s re­tail busi­ness is a key pil­lar of the EDF En­ergy 2020 vi­sion, which he an­nounced ear­lier this year, well be­fore an­nounc­ing his de­par­ture. If there is any dis­sat­is­fac­tion at not be­ing able to see the vi­sion through, there’s no trace of it in the bright Scot­tish sun­shine.

“In life you must al­ways know two things: the one is that ev­ery­thing has an end, and the other is ev­ery end has a be­gin­ning. So, the best is to come.”

He shrugs and smiles. “That’s all I can say, huh?”

‘In a sense it is very im­por­tant to leave a com­pany feel­ing that you are not ir­re­place­able’

‘If you are blind to the crit­ics you are in dan­ger. I have al­ways been con­scious of chal­lenges and dif­fi­cul­ties’

Vin­cent de Ri­vaz, the out­go­ing boss of EDF En­ergy, has over­seen key de­vel­op­ments such as the on­go­ing Hink­ley Point C nu­clear pro­ject

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