interview by Dimana Trankova; photography by Nelly Tomova

Milena Videnova, CEO, on how clever renewable energy can benefit Bulgaria and the region

Milena Videnova, CEO of AXPO Bulgaria

Energy: the more our civilisation evolves, the more it needs it to sustain itself. With human-induced climate change already happening, clever renewable power is the only solution to save our planet and ourselves. AXPO Group, a Swiss company, has for years been in the frontlines of developing, expanding and perfecting alternative energy sources. From sustainable energy solutions to power purchase agreements and development of state-of-art energy technologies, AXPO Group makes technological and business change possible.

In 2006, the group opened a subsidiary company in Bulgaria. Fifteen years later, AXPO Bulgaria is an example for growth, sustainable development and visionary policy for bringing positive change in the country and the region. We talk to Milena Videnova, CEO of AXPO Bulgaria, about the group, its mission and latest projects. Before joining the company, in 2020, she has worked for banking, insurance and finance multinationals.

Why does modern society need the work of АХРО?

Three traits define AXPO's DNA: reliability, sustainability, innovation.

AXPO is a Swiss company with over 100 years of history built on reliability, quality, longevity. Owned by Swiss cantons and utility companies, it is the largest renewable energy producer in Switzerland and one of Europe's biggest energy trader. We already opened two hubs in the US and Singapore, where the market of liquefied natural gas is booming.

Aiming at sustainability, AXPO works on achieving the balance between environmental, social and economic goals. Our long-term profitability allows us to act quickly and to be competitive on this growing market.

We are constantly innovating and striving to develop and offer to our clients and partners products and services with the biggest added value possible.

Modern society needs AXPO's innovation, sustainability and ability to contribute. This is the future in the context of the EU's Green Deal that will inevitably affect Bulgaria as well.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect EU's policies in regard to the Green Deal and the energy sector?

The pandemic catalysed and accelerated the Green Deal. Even before Covid-19 appeared, the new European Commission had set clearly formulated green goals for decreased greenhouse emissions, increased renewable energy sources and improved energy efficiency by 2030 and achieving the new neutral by 2050.

Milena Videnova, CEO of AXPO Bulgaria

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the question was whether to continue with the Green Deal. The Commission decided to spend more than half of the 1.8 trillion euros recovery package on policies that will make the EU better prepared and more resilient after the pandemic, including fighting the effects of climate change.

Unlike previous periods when direct subsidies were the norm in the field, today use of recyclable, added-value financial tools is preferred. Power purchase agreements (PPA), for example, now increasingly operate on a free market principle, incentivising investors and developers to design sustainable projects. Currently, as a result of European Central Bank policies, loan interests are at a record low, thus stimulating investment. And investment in sustainable renewable energy projects can help our society mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Such projects just need opportunity and cash flow to survive without direct subsidies. AXPO Group can help with this.

In the current crisis, each society and economy will benefit from increased exports. Export of sustainably produced renewable energy should be in each country's investment programme.

Why are the РРАs important for the development of the EU energy sector and how do they benefit the clients?

Markets are different in Europe and the EU. Liberalisation of the energy market and energy trade's liquidity horizon are one of the factors that define these differences. In the Nordic countries the market is well developed, with lots of stakeholders. The more you move southeast, where Bulgaria is, the more the market and the liquidity change. Renewable energy projects here are in their initial stages, but the potential for sustainable growth is present.

AXPO offers different tools to secure cash flow with a reasonable liquidity horizon without subsidies. Two companies within the group are dedicated to project development and design, Urbasolar in France and Volkswind in Germany. Both of them do not only focus on developing new solar plants and wind farms in their home markets, but are active in additional countries throughout Europe. АХРО Bulgaria is more active in trading and sales of energy, and the solutions that we offer in Bulgaria and Southeast Europe are based on the good practices in other countries where we operate.

What are the latest and most interesting projects of AXPO?

On the Spanish market we implemented a digital application that processes big data to predict wind patterns and a more clever use of wind energy. AXPO is the biggest producer of hydropower in Switzerland, and its Hydro 4.0 project is the first facility in the country with full automatisation of energy production. AXPO also has a methodology to optimise hydro energy production and storage.

Another AXPO company, CKW, develops clever solar panels for end-clients. This year, in Switzerland, we will start construction of AlpinSolar, the largest alpine solar plant in the world. Located at an altitude of 2,500 m, it will produce half of its energy in winter. The power produced will be sold to Switzerland’s largest discounter Denner by means of the country’s first solar PPA.

We also develop facilities for turning biogenic waste into biogas, heat and fertiliser.

Each process can be digitised and optimised, and innovation is a constant at AXPO.

A significant part of АХРО's innovation is the result of the corporate policy to encourage employees to innovate, propose ideas and be a part of their realisation. This is an invaluable entrepreneurial experience in a safe environment.

AXPO's ability to offer innovative sales and production solutions is also connected to its capability to analyse large data bases and to translate this into working strategies and top solutions for the clients.

АХРО arrived in Bulgaria in 2006. How did the Bulgarian office change since then?

Initially, АХРО opened a subsidiary company in Bulgaria. In 2007, it got a license to trade with energy in Bulgaria and the neighbouring countries. In 2011, the group expanded its Bulgarian branch into an operational centre that manages gas and electricity logistics to almost all European markets where AXPO operates. AXPO Bulgaria also has a lot of back-office functions.

In 2019, АХРО Bulgaria became as well a sales hub for Southeastern Europe. In 2020 we got licensed for wholesale gas and electricity trade to the region. Trade with energy, electricity, gas and carbon dioxide emissions is strictly regulated by national governments, and AXPO Bulgaria succeeds in this as it works on a scale surpassing that of other local and regional traders. This year we also started to hire originators: these are sales managers of structured and tailor-made products for big industrial customers and wholesale traders, focused on PPA projects.

Milena Videnova, CEO of AXPO Bulgaria

In short, AXPO Bulgaria performs two core functions crucial for the group: as a SEE trading hub and as an operational centre for AXPO Trading and Sales. I hope that we will continue upgrading with new high-technology services.

How does the Bulgarian market benefit from AXPO's presence?

AXPO's added value is the ability to create demand and to introduce good practices adapted to the local market. In all fields in which we operate – origination, wholesale trade with physical and financial derivatives and energy business support functions – we stand out with the scale and complexity of our operations. We can develop pilot PPA projects that can grow sustainably in the context of the Green Deal. We can offer other tailored solutions for wholesale traders and large industrial clients. We can benefit the local market to evolve from an emerging to a developed one.

AXPO Bulgaria is an equal part of the whole group. Our key performance indicators show that when personal and process effectiveness are optimised it is possible to work efficiently in Bulgaria. Tellingly, in the two years after AXPO Bulgaria became a sales hub, its team expanded from 55 to 80 people.

What corporate responsibility policies does AXPO Bulgaria apply?

Last year we planted 14 trees in Sofia to celebrate AXPO Bulgaria's 14th anniversary. We will continue this tradition and we hope that this small forest will continue to grow. We, as employees, also decided to fund a project of PULSE foundation in Pernik. We donate money – which AXPO doubles – to equip with solar panels a house for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse.

These are small steps but I am happy that our colleagues and I put our hearts in them.

AXPO also values diversity and inclusion. Our Bulgarian team's average age is 34 years, it includes both Bulgarian and foreign professionals, and the gender parity is 50:50. This is an outstanding result, as both abroad and in Bulgaria the energy industry is still considered a rather male field. We do our best to hire the best specialist for the particular position, regardless of their age, nationality, sex.

You, personally, could grow your career abroad. Why did you choose Bulgaria?

I have studied and worked in different EU countries. I learnt a lot there but I believe that Bulgaria and its people have incredible potential for personal and business development. A large international structure such as AXPO with its wide portfolio of services and activities can be an agent of positive change in this respect.

This is why we, at AXPO Bulgaria, will open an internship programme for young and ambitious graduates. In 18 months they will have the opportunity to join different AXPO teams and projects. Our business is complex, dynamic, interesting and constantly developing, and we are eager to invest in motivated young talents who might become a part of AXPO. It is a win-win situation for both sides. The programme is already successful in Switzerland and Spain. 


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