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The passionate problem solver: Nicole Iseppi

30 October 2018 | Alumni Access Series


When Garrett Hardin wrote The Tragedy of the Commons in 1968 he was specifically looking at population growth as one of the great unsolvable problems facing humankind.

Herbert Smith Freehills Alumni - Nicole Iseppi

Today scholars and philosophers have extrapolated his theories to consider the topic of climate change – in that it’s an issue that constantly gets kicked forward, as just too hard to solve by technical means. It will affect those who come next more than those of us already here, so there’s a tendency to place it in the too-hard basket and close our eyes.

It’s fortunate for the planet, then, that there are people like Nicole Iseppi working in this sphere. Nicole is an international businesswoman who is passionate about solving problems. “I’m a strong believer that there’s a solution to everything,” she says. “We just need to think a little bit deeper and out of the box.”

Her drive and commitment to innovation clearly make an impact and she is often invited as an industry expert to speak at various global infrastructure and finance conferences, within both the private and public sectors. This year alone she has already delivered a keynote address at the Global Solar Leader Summit and was also invited to speak at the G20 Global Infrastructure First Annual Meeting. Nicole has also won several accolades including: Global Energy and Natural Resource Adviser of the Year 2018, Global Energy Lawyer of the Year 2017 and 2018 at the Worldwide Financial Adviser Awards and has been named in each of the Global Game Changers Index 2018, Global 100 Index 2017 and Executive Europe Index Awards 2018.

For the last 18 years Nicole has been working in the global energy infrastructure sector. It’s work she describes as an honour and a pleasure. She is currently Associate Director of Global Generation at the multinational electric utility company, ENGIE, following various other positions within the organisation and equally rewarding roles at Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). The latter she describes as “an amazing, unique opportunity” and felt fortunate to be able to work on “such high quality energy infrastructure and financing deals around the globe, not only as my first overseas experience, but also my first in-house corporate role”.

It was a particular highpoint she says as she was the first female foreigner ever to be engaged to work as an adviser in-house within JBIC. “It created an important milestone in my career.”

Her role was to advise JBIC’s senior management on their high-profile energy related transactions and during her time in Tokyo, she was also engaged to advise (as an additional role) both JBIC and the Japanese Ministry of Finance on the establishment and implementation of a new financial institution called Japan Carbon Finance.

Since 2016 she has been part of ENGIE’s global generation strategy team, which is working within the energy revolution - currently transforming global markets.

She says the decision to join ENGIE in 2010 and be an integral part of the company’s transformation to a low carbon portfolio and a leader in the energy transformation, has been one of the best professional decisions she has made and also speaks enthusiastically of her involvement in various non-profit industry initiatives such as the global solar Terrawatt Initiative (TWI) and its Solar Energy Standardisation Initiative (SESI), jointly undertaken with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). SESI aims to standardise core contracts to streamline global development and finance to help meet the objectives put in place by both the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.

Nicole sits on the management committee of TWI and has also been appointed project and legal director of this global non-profit foundation, created out of the Paris Agreement, COP 21. What she finds especially inspiring about the initiative is bringing together multiple stakeholders to constantly collaborate to develop new tools to assist the industry to achieve further development and market innovation. “COP 21 was a profound time where all governments got together and made a commitment to the Paris Agreement, but as we know government is only one part of the equation to actually achieve development and financing of our global infrastructure needs.”

TWI is a global non-profit that acts as the independent voice of the global private sector. Its initial focus is on solar photovoltaic as it’s a low-risk technology and an area where change can be implemented at a comparatively quick speed. But overall it is focusing on creating the tools and programs needed to achieve market innovation to address the growing energy needs and always deliver a lower cost of energy.

“The energy sector now has to deliver the many socioeconomic benefits of affordable renewable energies at the scale required by these two political landmark decisions (that is, the UN Sustainable Goals and Paris Agreement),” says Nicole, “and hence TWI aims to animate a high level public and private dialogue at a global level, to bring all core stakeholders together... to work out exactly how we can all best define and implement such a future global market for solar power (and also other forms of renewable energy).”

This entails greater deployment and industry assistance in order to “get more deals executed and constructed”, says Nicole, adding that the way to do this is via standardisation. “We’ve got developers, bankers, both government and corporate, insurance providers, manufacturers, suppliers collaborating and brainstorming to work out a bankable and balanced risk profile, that everyone is fine with, to achieve both increased access to energy and, very importantly, a lower cost of energy for our future energy needs.”

In June 2017, the US announced that it was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. This was considered a major blow and possibly the end of the Paris Agreement by many involved.

More recently, in order to appease some conservative detractors in his own party, the former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, redrafted the Coalition’s energy policy to remove carbon emission reduction targets. Such reductions would have been in line with Australia’s obligations to the Paris Agreement.

Despite such developments, true to her problem-solving and optimistic nature, Nicole isn’t completely disheartened. “What the Paris Agreement achieved was a great milestone,” she says. “It was the first time ever multiple governments had come together on global climate change… I’m a believer that there is not a single issue or person, despite how ever important they are, that can actually completely stop or reverse this current global momentum in the industry.”

To illustrate, she notes how the initial focus on climate change and energy has now expanded into other industries like automotive, with the increased push towards electric cars. “We are now in a new industrial revolution and not simply a phase of energy transition,” she says. “The interesting thing is this energy momentum and focus on low carbon is not being driven only by governments.”

Nicole is also inspired by the independent coalitions being formed, such as C40, which comprises mayors from around the world making independent commitments to emission reduction in their own cities.

“The momentum is in the mindset,” she says. “There is no longer one category of stakeholders singularly leading this discussion. It is being driven by multiple different stakeholders (private and public, companies and individuals etc) across the whole value chain. To completely stop or reverse that momentum now, would be extremely difficult. I don’t foresee that.”

The Holy Grail at the end of all these initiatives is a planet that eventually is able to generate 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Recent reports say that Scotland is on track to achieve this by 2020, but Nicole suggests that, globally, expectations should be more modest as to when this can be reliably achieved to provide for all future energy needs. “It’s not quite possible now, but will be in the future once we can add, for example, green gas into that 100 percent renewable equation and, hence, provide for additional reliability to the base load to serve all energy supply needs.

“Once our current natural gas can become a form of green gas (such as hydrogen etc) and is economically viable as an energy fuel source to use, we can then mix such green gas with other forms of renewables such as solar, wind, hydro, storage etc and then, yes, you can create a scenario where a whole society could reliably look to live off a 100 percent renewable energy solution.”

And she is confident this can be achieved in the future. “I’ve always been a pretty optimistic person, so I’m naturally hopeful for the future,” she says. “I’m a true believer there’s a solution to everything. Sometimes the solution you have in front of you may not be the most desirable at the time, but the best you can do at the time. And you constantly try to further improve that. I do think the future is positive.”

There are those who fall into careers by circumstance or accident and there are those who find their niche early and never look back. Nicole falls into the latter category, and says she found her direction in life right at the beginning of her career – when she was doing work experience at Freehills (legacy). “I was a fourth year law student and I recall going home after the first day and sitting down to dinner with my parents and saying, ‘I want to be a project and energy lawyer’.”

Witnessing an ardent team of commercially driven lawyers immediately resonated with her zeal for problem-solving, she says. “For the first time I could see the real possibility to achieve what I had always hoped and pursued – being a lawyer, being commercial, but also having a positive impact on the wider society and community.”

Nicole is passionate about having an impact in other areas too and talks in depth about the importance of also sharing her international and unique global experience whenever she’s back in Australia, where she is a member of various industry associations.

“I'm really supportive and happy to share my knowledge and experience to help progress, particularly the Australian energy infrastructure industry. And so, every time I’m home, I go and volunteer my time and share my thoughts. And I like to hear what’s happening back home too, to grow that also into the other discussion that’s happening around the world too.”

She says nothing makes her prouder than being a member of this global industry for nearly the last two decades and having the opportunity to contribute to its future advancements, including in her capacity as a committee member of the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Global Power Law Committee and also the Strategy Management Committee for Global Energy, Environment, Natural Resources and Infrastructure Law, where “we have the opportunity to share our industry knowledge with fellow professional peers and collaborate to create future advancements for increased evolution and innovation within the sector,” she says.