A Head Start in Renewable Energy

Guillaume Bourtourault

Ever since he was a teenager growing up in a Paris suburb in the early 1990s, Guillaume Bourtourault's career aspirations have been driven by his concerns about the state of the planet. And he has always had grand ambitions. In France, he says, environmentalists long seemed to be regarded as "extremists or dreamers," out of the mainstream, but "my idea was really that if you wanted to do anything of importance, ... you had to [do] it at a great scale and integrate [environmental concerns] in[to] the economy." He's pursued that goal almost single-mindedly, but it hasn't always been easy.

To begin with, he says, efforts to protect the environment were slow to catch on in France. Bourtourault had a hard time when he first started looking for an environmental job in industry. But he continued to gather skills and experience, and by the time environmental protection made it onto the French political agenda, he was well positioned. Bourtourault, 31, is currently working on biomass and renewable energy for a leading French renewable-energy company. "In comparison with some colleagues of mine, I had a very early start in this field; that gives me a good knowledge of this field and a real network already," he says. "And because this is also a personal concern and interest, I have a long-term vision that some people do not have. This really is an advantage."

A key to making it in the environmental field, Bourtourault believes, is to gain a solid grounding in the natural sciences, a good knowledge of environmental issues, and early industrial experience. He made sure he picked them all up along the way.

Setting up the foundations

Bourtourault entered the French engineering Ecole Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris in 1995, where he gained "a broad education in chemistry, physics, and biology, ... the three components of environmental problems or issues." During his final year, Bourtourault did a short research project on the detection of ozone, a second one on the storage of nuclear waste, and a 4-month internship at the state-owned Aérospatiale company, where he worked on nonpolluting anticorrosion treatments.

Then, in 1998, he left France to do an M.Sc. degree in environmental and earth resources engineering at Imperial College London. The United Kingdom, he felt, had many more environmental courses than France, and importantly, these were more "concrete and practical." At Imperial, he was able to do a research project on the dispersion of pollutants in the atmosphere, take classes in European environmental laws and industrial waste treatment, and go into the field to see "how it was actually done."

Nowadays, France offers many courses on environmental technologies, but Bourtourault is not impressed. "You learn general concepts and ideas," he says, "but if you have an interest [in] environment, you know all this" already. Instead, he advises a broad and thorough scientific training. "There are so many different fields where you could satisfy your passion for [the] environment, but you can always find some chemistry or physics or maths that you can apply. Then I think you have to find your own expertise and build it up along the years, and then you can bring something to the industry or the energy world."

Martine Lechevalier, technical manager of hydro and thermal power plants at EDF Energies Nouvelles, the renewable-energy company where Bourtourault now works, agrees. "A very serious technical background is necessary, as different techniques exist ... with major technical or economical problems," she says. But even a strong technical background is not sufficient. Because the field of renewable energies is still nascent in France, there is a "need for young French engineers to be open-minded to what occurs, and especially abroad," she writes in an e-mail. "As the French context is very difficult for the development of this activity, positive attitude and self confidence is a priority. It's also fundamental to try to concentrate on specific topics or project/technology in order not to try to see everything; ... that is to say, nothing."

Credit: Hughes Leglise-Bataille

The early rides

Finding a job suited to his interests and expertise at first proved difficult. "I have always talked about environment in my applications," he says. But "nobody really cared about that. ... People just thought, 'OK, he is one of the dreamers, just leave it.' " This early reluctance prompted Bourtourault to set up a new association-- Vive la Trottinette --that promotes sustainable development as "a global concern." In its first year, the association persuaded a Paris university campus to make some recycling bins available, the BMW foundation and Paris town council to sponsor them, the students to use them, and trash collectors to pick them up. The effort honed Bourtourault's communication and management skills, established important contacts, and tested his determination to see a project through. "With a long-term development--it lasted for almost a year--you have to be yourself convinced that you will succeed in this project. It was really a useful experience," he says.

Eventually, 10 months into his job search, Bourtourault persuaded a potential employer to take him seriously. He started work at the German waste-management company SITA Deutschland GmbH in 2000. The experience proved interesting but not in tune with Bourtourault's environmental aspirations. "The job actually consisted in finding the cheapest way to get rid of various waste substances, and it was not always the most ecological one," he says. Bourtourault also found that dedicating himself to making material disappear wasn't as fulfilling to him as he had expected. "I had some discussions with my colleagues, and they said, 'If you want to produce, then you have to go to energy,' " he says. Bourtourault started looking at waste--rather, at the biomass it contains--as an environmentally friendly and valuable energy resource.

Bourtourault's next step was to secure a job at France's main electricity supplier, EDF. In 2001, he joined a four-person research and development team whose role was to "see if there is an interest [in biomass energy] on our side; we were potential customers, not producers," he says. During the next 4 years, Bourtourault compared the efficiency and economic viability of different processes of producing gaseous fuels from biomass to drive turbines; he also contributed to the blueprint of a national biofuels programme.

Importantly, Bourtourault kept building his expertise. During his first 2 years at EDF, he arranged to work 4 days a week so he could earn an M.Sc. degree that would give him a good view of the social context for renewable energies. "It gave me a good knowledge of the regulatory field ... and opened my knowledge to economics and politics. It was very good because, to be able to discuss with management people, you need to understand the logistics and the market."

A researcher works on developing high quality crops for biomass conversion processes. (Credit: NREL/DOE - Warren Gretz)

Full steam ahead

Eventually, Bourtourault felt the desire to "change to real projects" and secured a position at the company's renewable-energy subsidiary EDF Energies Nouvelles. "They just wanted to have an expert in the field so that we could look at the different opportunities and get into them," says Bourtourault, who is now in charge of selecting, from among the many different proposals the company receives, the projects that seem the most "technically feasible, interesting, [and] profitable." Part of his job is to set up development projects for the most promising proposals. This involves bringing in outside experts to build up a functional team and oversee progress. Each project requires an EDF investment of between 20 and 70 million euros, Bourtourault says, and in the 4 or 5 years needed to see a project through, "there are many reasons why this project can stop and die. Our role is really to make sure it works."

Bourtourault is getting closer to the environmental job he dreamt of in his teen years. "This was really my aim coming here," he says, "to be able to make the whole development [happen], from ... the idea to the realisation of the project." He especially enjoys his role as a technical expert in the company. "Because [biomass] is new in this company, I really have a good view of all the projects going on here, and I am always asked by my colleagues to give my advice. ... For me, it is really rewarding." And with only 1 year on the job and many development projects on the go, Bourtourault expects his role to continue to expand: "Afterward, we'll have another department here that will be responsible for the construction and another for the operation. I think I will be involved in all the three steps."

Those steps will be important in Bourtourault's professional development, says Lechevalier. As she sees it, in the current context in which development trends are going all over the place, a challenge in this field is "not to let oneself get carried away by some project or technology ... but to focus on the economical reality." She anticipates that getting involved in the development phase of a project will allow Bourtourault "to progress and refine his judgement capabilities. ... [He] has [the] technical know-how, but he needs to tackle a project from the conception to the end in order to see the reality of the technology and the financial results of ... a project."

Bourtourault is very pleased to have ended up working in the field of renewable energies. The timing was right; had it been a decade earlier, he says he may not have entered it: "I am not sure I would have gone to the kind of pioneering companies that already existed at that time, because [they were] very marginal. I think my idea was really to make it happen in the 'real world,' so to try to work in the right direction within bigger corporations, in order to change 'from the inside' the established organisations." Back then, waste management and water treatment were already established environmental fields; he would, he says, very likely have found them "green enough" already.

Although the environmental issues he is tackling are now different, Bourtourault's early ambitions are unalloyed. Vive la Trottinette is currently inactive, but it still exists, and Bourtourault has in mind to "try to move this former student association to a more professional activity that would keep this 'political' arm.' " For now, it simmers in the background as another manifestation of his persistence and focus. "If you are interested in a certain field, then you think about it day and night. Then you really have ... an approach that is sincere and that gives you an insight in all these issues that some people don't have," he says.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

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