Philip Julien is set to transform the economy.
The green energy CEO of Kenesjay Systems and NewGen Energy may be the country’s most ambitious and visionary business leader.
His company, NewGen Energy, will use renewable energy electricity, run through the state-owned electricity company T&TEC, to manufacture hydrogen, using water electrolysis, to sell to our hydrogen-hungry ammonia plants in Point Lisas.
At more than US$300 million, it has the potential to generate more than US$5 million in taxes annually, up to 1,000 construction jobs and a further 200 jobs after completion. When launched next year, this will be the first green hydrogen project of its scale in the world.
Little wonder that investors, including the multi-billion-dollar Blackstone Group have already bitten.
But to understand the real impact of this project, it is necessary to drive down to Point Lisas and speak with the anxious workers at many of the plants mothballed through lack of natural gas. Many have been plunged into depression and hardship as their jobs have vanished.
How will their lives be affected?
On the eve of TT’s annual energy conference, overshadowed by gas curtailments and climate-change upheavals (Exxon Mobil’s management just faced a shareholder uprising that put two “green” directors on its board), I interviewed Julien about the future of energy in TT.
How did your childhood upbringing prepare you for this point?
Mine was a very loving, nurturing home- especially with my mother. I grew up in a household where my dad was exploring new frontiers with like-minded individuals. (Julien’s father, Prof Kenneth Julien, is widely known as the father of the downstream energy industry in TT).
Around the dinner table we had these conversations about what he (his father) was up to, but he never made it a big deal. The approach was kind of like a, “Well, why not do it?” During those formative years, there was never a sentiment that anything couldn’t be done.
I only learned later about Point Lisas and Atlantic, how transformative people saw it. Other people nowadays say: “It’s too much work, we can’t do that here, it’s Trinidad,” but we never heard that.
I left Trinidad in my mid-teens. I went to school in England, went to university in McGill and Montreal. I worked for ten years before feeling the urge to come back home in my early 30s.
I had the pleasure of working alongside Dad for a few years. Moving on to run (aluminium company) Alutrint was an upward chapter. Finally, in mid-2018, when the family relocated to Canada, was when Dad said, 'Look, don’t rush it, you can hold on for Kenesjay Systems as the managing director.'
Many people might have struggled working with a prominent father. Most people in that situation end up with daddy issues!
Dad’s always been unassuming. Some might think: “Oh my goodness, am I expected to walk in these shoes” – but you don’t have to walk a mile in those shoes. There’s your own space to own.
We always had the assurance that it was ok to think big. He gave me the freedom and optimistic attitude shared by a few others, many of whom I met around the energy conference table with Dax (Dr Thackwray Driver, CEO of the Energy Chamber) and others.
We didn’t have the mandate. It really was my own decision to return to build the energy sector here. I realised that Kenesjay could be the vehicle that was created to help move the energy sector towards the sustainable space, and to apply the colour green to it.
How did you begin to see hydrogen would be the solution to our downstream energy-sector challenges?
TT has a massive appetite for hydrogen that’s disguised as an appetite for natural gas. The ammonia plants are using most of the natural gas to manufacture hydrogen.
You have a captive market hungry for hydrogen that is also facing the opportunity to track the global premium if their carbon footprint is reduced. The more carbon-neutral electricity we can generate for the country, the more value we can create, not just for the climate, but for the energy sector as a whole.
What has investor interest been like? Green funds are blowing up globally in popularity.
We’ve already had interest from the Blackstone Group, which you will know (one of the world’s largest private equity firms) and even some interested local investors which have provided seed capital. The IDB and others are interested.
Where are you getting this renewable power from?
We’re looking at 175MW of additional power capacity. This will be the equivalent of ten per cent of the electricity production capability in the country. This will not involve any natural gas combustion at all.
Some of which will be from BP (their 130MW solar project) (25MW]), and much of it from the waste heat from the existing gas-fired power plant. TT’s power plants have never been upgraded to combined cycle, which is much more efficient.
We finally have a business imperative to attach this to the single-cycle power plant. That electricity can be certified as carbon-neutral, which is as good as building a renewable facility. It is using an inefficiency in the sector to capture the waste heat and creating energy-efficient hydrogen.
But what we really need to do is to build out considerably more renewable energy or import it from the region. To replace all the gas-fired hydrogen in TT we’d need as much as 10GW of energy (to put that in perspective, that is five times as much of TT’s entire installed power capacity). This is a spectacular amount of renewable energy. We intend to be involved in that – Kenesjay Green has the intention of being involved in the full value chain.
That is hugely ambitious. Do you have a sense of the impact that you can have, starting with the current project?
Right now, there are plants that are mothballed and uneconomic to operate at, say, 40 per cent capacity, without the natural gas for hydrogen. We can increase their capacity, using renewable energy that doesn’t require gas. That extra 20 per cent of capacity could mean the difference between that plant keeping their doors open or not.
There are jobs that you’ll create from employment. We will be a taxpayer, enabling the whole ecosystem. The carbon-neutral and green hydrogen that we generate will result in carbon-neutral and green ammonia. When TT can start marketing green ammonia, we’ve got a globally competitive premium product that the world is hungry for. That is transformative.
TT has a remarkable opportunity to be one of the first in the plant to do this at scale. We have a legacy of firsts. Look at our creative sector, music –the steel drums. Point Lisas will be one of the first in the green downstream energy sector.
That’s the game afoot to keep things moving, I think what we can do for the country.
What advice would you have for a young person starting out, looking to do something transformative?
Get schooled up in the renewable space. Renewable generation is an unstoppable global trend.
Think how to make renewables competitive in the arena.
Spend time learning what made us great and is there way to apply this in the technology space.
Just have a mindset of unlimited optimism. There is nothing you can’t do.
Don’t think because we are in TT we can’t do it.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is an economist and co-founder of medl, an IDB lab-backed social impact health tech company