Energy for Growth Hub

Episode #23 Benjamin Attia: Why We Want Climate Finance to Be Boring

Benjamin Attia, energy transition researcher, energy systems modeler, and long-time Hub fellow, joins the show to talk about his career as a professional researcher, explain why blended finance is more than a buzzword, and help us nerd out on climate finance.

Benjamin Attia is Research Lead for Energy, Climate and Sustainability at the Blackrock Investment Institute, where he leads the firm’s in-house transition scenario modeling effort, supports investment research processes for climate infrastructure, and provides insights on topics related to energy, systems, climate change, and the SDGs to internal and external clients. He is a part-time doctoral researcher focused on climate finance flows to the Global South and novel climate finance instruments at the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He also conducts affiliated research with various partners and as a Non-Resident Fellow at The Payne Institute for Public Policy and the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project at Duke University. Ben was previously a Principal Analyst in the Energy Transition practice at Wood Mackenzie, where he built and led the firm’s coverage of power sector transitions and energy access in emerging markets, primarily focused in Africa and the Middle East. He has also worked in solar asset management and rural electrification at SunEdison, and conducted regulatory research for the U.S. utilities sector at the National Regulatory Research Institute. Benjamin holds a Masters of Energy & Environmental Policy and a B.S. in Economics and Energy & Environmental Policy from the Biden School of Public Policy & Administration at the University of Delaware.


Show Notes


Transcript

[00:00:05] KATIE AUTH: I’m Katie Auth.

[00:00:06] ROSE MUTISO: And I’m Rose Mutiso and this is a High Energy Planet. The podcast from the energy for growth hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.

[00:00:13] KATIE AUTH: On today’s show, Ben Attia, Energy Transition Researcher and Energy Systems Modeler and a longtime Hub Fellow. Ben started his undergraduate studies with the goal actually of becoming a lawyer. And then he unexpectedly fell in love with energy. And since then he’s made a really interesting career of professional research.

[00:00:33] KATIE AUTH: Exploring all different topics in energy from finance to policy to market trends. And just to make us feel, uh, You know, even less productive. He’s also a part time doctoral student at Oxford focused on new ways to track and understand climate finance flows. He previously spent six years at Wood Mackenzie, where he built the firm’s coverage of power sector transitions in emerging markets, especially in Africa and the Middle East.

[00:01:01] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, and you know, Ben has been with us for quite a while. I think he’s one of our original fellows for many years. Ben, how many now? I don’t want to date you, but

[00:01:10] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I think about six. Yeah. I think, I think Todd called me before the hub was launched. So yeah, I think I, I think I am an OG.

[00:01:17] ROSE MUTISO: Interesting, because I think of myself as the OG. So I think you, me, and Jay Teenager need to battle this out about who is the actual OG. But, um, yeah, so you’ve been around a while and you’ve been essential in guiding our understanding of market and finance aspects of clean energy policy in emerging markets.

[00:01:36] ROSE MUTISO: And, you know, these are clean energy finance, uh, kind of market. dimensions of policy, um, are trendy topics, but they’re often misunderstood. And, this is why we need a Ben in our lives. And I’m super excited to pick his brain today and learn even more.

[00:01:49] KATIE AUTH: Ben’s also amazing because he’s a dad to two toddlers. He’s doing a big full time job and he’s also doing his PhD. So, uh, how? Hopefully we can learn that as well. So let’s dive in. Ben, it’s so great to have you here.

[00:02:04] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Thanks so much for having me. Thanks for the kind introduction.

[00:02:07] KATIE AUTH: So we’re going to start with a question we ask all our guests, which is tell us something about how and where you grew up and how it shaped the person that you are. What?

[00:02:32] BENJAMIN ATTIA: of either, I’ve never met anyone from Delaware before. Or, uh, where is that? Um, so it’s a , uh, a little bit of a random upbringing. Uh, my family’s originally Egyptian, but I was born and raised in the us. , and I think that kind of gave me a just a, Delaware is a very small place. , there’s not a lot going on. Uh, it’s not a very exciting place to live. , but I do think it’s, it’s kind of special, and there are, um, a few sort of very important, uh, industries there,  one of which is the legal profession,  which is something that, as you mentioned in your intro,  was sort of my initial career plan.

[00:03:05] BENJAMIN ATTIA: , and so I ended up at the University of Delaware, and I was looking for sort of a pre law major,  and found this energy and environmental policy program and studied that alongside economics, and sort of one thing led to another, and, and as you said, I, I sort of,  made a bit of a pivot, and,  I would credit my Delawarean upbringing, for the reason that I fell in love with energy in the first place.

[00:03:25] ROSE MUTISO: Gosh, yeah, you know what? I, I love Delaware. , I’m not one of those who say, I don’t know where it is. I’ve actually been to the state fair. So you know what? I, you know, I’m, I’m deep, I’m deep in there with you. It’s a long story for another day.

[00:03:34] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Love it, love it. I’ve actually never been to the Delaware State Fair, so you’ve got one up on me there, but,

[00:03:39] ROSE MUTISO: oh,

[00:03:40] BENJAMIN ATTIA: yeah, it’s a, it’s a very, very special little place,  that , most people do not love, so I love to hear that you love it.

[00:03:46] KATIE AUTH: Well, except if you’re incorporating your business, right? They love Delaware. Okay.

[00:03:50] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, I guess

[00:03:51] BENJAMIN ATTIA: yeah, correct, correct, that’s

[00:03:53] ROSE MUTISO: yeah, how I got to know actually Delaware is because I worked for Senator Chris Coons when I did this fellowship in, on the Hill. And one thing I think to your point, it’s a small state and it ended up being such an interesting,  kind of policy launching pad for me because, because of its smallness, you know,  we had so much leeway to take on, you know, all sorts of issues that were interesting to us.

[00:04:14] ROSE MUTISO: So, you know, I remember I had colleagues in like one of the California offices or New York and those, states are like entire countries, you know, there’s just too much on to, you know, just in your day job. And so I, I love the idea of Delawareans being folks who from this small base are looking out and are curious about all sorts of things, including energy.

[00:04:33] ROSE MUTISO: So, that’s,  that makes sense to me. , so just a little bit, just drilling down a little bit on this, switching from law to energy, you know, was there a particular moment when you realized, like, I, I, I want to focus on energy? This is a topic that’s interesting to me. Aside from, of course, I guess you were like, I don’t want to make money.

[00:04:50] ROSE MUTISO: I don’t want to be a big shot lawyer. But, what kind of really inspired, you know, specifically this decision?

[00:04:57] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think for me it was maybe sort of more gradual than, than all at once, but, I think part of it was maybe one defining moment was, studying for the LSAT and beginning to make my law school preparations and realizing, hmm, I don’t know if I really want to do this. but more so, you know, not saying I don’t want to be a lawyer because I don’t like law, but more that I had fallen in love with something else.

[00:05:20] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And, and I, I think it was mainly for me,  actually working on my master’s thesis,  where I kind of realized like, oh, I think this is, the exact right time to join the energy space because it is, it is an industry that is, was at the time sort of at the very beginning of what we now know is a massive transition and massive disruption.

[00:05:42] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And I, and I would sort of credit the timing there a little bit to say Wow, you know, this is something that will be endlessly fascinating, and endlessly important, because the transition and climate change is probably the biggest,  sort of challenge that we face as a society. , and I think that, you know, kind of realizing that that transformation and that transition was sort of just getting underway, gave me something, you know, it sort of felt like there was no ceiling, and that this would be something I could spend the rest of my career on and never be bored and never feel like it was, it was stagnant.

[00:06:12] KATIE AUTH: Did you know,

[00:06:13] BENJAMIN ATTIA: goes, goes quick. Yeah, please.

[00:06:15] KATIE AUTH: I was just going to say, like, did you know right away that you wanted to focus on emerging markets or did you think about focusing domestically in the U. S. first? Was that ever a question for you?

[00:06:26] BENJAMIN ATTIA: It was, yeah, so I, I would say there’s, there’s two, two pieces to that. The first one is, one of the reasons that the law became less appealing to me is that, the sort of parts of energy law that are international are quite niche. so generally if you were to become an energy lawyer, I mean, this is sort of us FERC regulation, type pathways, or, you know, PPA negotiations and things like that.

[00:06:47] BENJAMIN ATTIA: So there was a bit of a bifurcation in my interest there. but then I think the second one was that I took a few courses, that were focused on energy and sustainable development, and it helped me realize that the importance of energy, not just as sort of the golden thread for development, but also as a catalyst for economic growth was something that, was just severely lacking in a huge part of the world.

[00:07:07] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And that was sort of my moment of realization that, you know, exactly what the Hub is focused on and exactly what I’ve made a large portion of my career about, is just that the lack of access to energy and the lack of, you know, high energy planet, that we, that we really do need.

[00:07:21] KATIE AUTH: So, this links to the next thing I was going to ask you about, which is, About a year ago now, you and I co wrote a piece together on how rising interest rates globally were making it really hard to invest in renewables everywhere, but especially in developing economies. And at the time, I think this was an issue that was At risk of being underestimated, and the issue wasn’t getting a ton of attention.

[00:07:48] KATIE AUTH: Definitely not as much as it needed, we thought, but now I think, you know, any energy conference you attend, people are talking about interest rates. It’s something that we’ve all gotten really good at describing the problem. But where do we go from here? We understand it’s an issue. What’s a tangible way you see of actually kind of diving in and addressing the interest rate challenge?

[00:08:14] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, and I think, you know, that paper has aged pretty well over the last couple of years. sometimes you write research and you find out that actually your hypothesis was quite wrong, but I think in this case we were pretty on point, to identify this issue, you know, once interest rates started to rise,  and I think part of what we see is that, you know, this is a, this tightening monetary policy that, that we’ve seen across the world, it, it really drives up the cost of capital and, and that’s really difficult for the renewable sector, particularly where you see, you know, CapEx heavy projects, where, you know, typically,  fossil fuel based energy projects are typically more CapEx light and OpEx heavy.

[00:08:50] BENJAMIN ATTIA: , and Renewable Energy is typically the opposite, which is CapEx Heavy and OpEx Light, which means that upfront cost needs to be financed. And in general, you know, this is already a problem in emerging markets before the high interest rate environment,  because in, across many of the, the EMs there are,  there is sort of a very substantial perceived risk premium,  that may or may not really be justified, right?

[00:09:10] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And there’s quite a lot of work going on in this space to try to better quantify the difference between sort of the real risk premium and the perceived risk premium. And they can be quite substantial differences in some cases. So I think that’s, that’s sort of the first solution there is trying to basically bridge that gap between, you know, how much of this risk premium is really just investor discomfort or lack of data or other issues like that versus sort of real differences in, in risk premium that do need to be priced into into contracts and into financing.

[00:09:36] BENJAMIN ATTIA: So I think that’s, that’s sort of one low, low hanging fruit way to help. And I think the other one is that, you know, there are some supply chain issues and some contract issues and things that we identified in the paper as well that are also driving up some of the, the end use prices of these renewable energy projects, which make them a little bit less competitive.

[00:09:52] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And there are ways that supply chains can be diversified or, or pivoted in some cases contract structures could be made a little bit more creative, and that kind of alleviates some of the, the cost of capital issues. Because some of this is monetary policy, and, and, you know, just need to wait for the interest rate environment to change.

[00:10:07] BENJAMIN ATTIA: But there are some low hanging fruit options that could be taken today to help bring those rates down and bring the cost of capital down.

[00:10:14] KATIE AUTH: Yeah.

[00:10:14] ROSE MUTISO: So Ben, I love your response and I think you’ve put a lot of nuance into it. What we often hear now, because now this is like interest rates, cost of capital is is a big topic. And so there’s almost been a reduction. you know, of the conversation has kind of been reduced to this talking point, right?

[00:10:34] ROSE MUTISO: And so, you know, you, you have much more sight into what is actually happening in these emerging markets. How big of a deal is this? I know that you guys wrote this great paper saying that this is a big deal, and now people are talking about it, but how much is this cost of capital that kind of, you know, this mega giant kind of end all be all roadblock in investing in renewable projects in emerging markets?

[00:11:00] ROSE MUTISO: Or is there more to the story? Are people acting in surprising ways despite the existence of this challenge?

[00:11:06] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Hmm. Yeah, no, that’s a really good question. I don’t think it’s sort of the end all be all. I mean, we do see projects getting financed and I really, my perception at least is that there is probably more of a and demand side problem than a supply side problem when it comes to finance for these types of projects.

[00:11:23] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And generally it is that, you know, there is a lack of bankable projects that are being developed that are sort of able to connect to international capital markets. And part of that is a ticket size issue. Some of these projects are too small for international capital markets. I also wrote a memo for The Hub a few years ago about how some of these projects are too big for international capital markets.

[00:11:44] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And actually a lot of these mega projects, particularly the sort of big wave of projects that had been announced in Sub Saharan Africa, was not likely to materialize. It was almost sort of too big to succeed in some cases. And there is a bit of a sweet spot where you want ticket sizes that are large enough for international capital providers, but projects that are sort of achievable, sort of make sense in terms of the local grid context, the local

[00:12:07] KATIE AUTH: What, what is that ticket size window? Are you able to kind of quantify that very roughly?

[00:12:14] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I think it depends on the country and the grid, but I mean, I think we’re talking about sort of double digit millions to triple digit millions. I think most of the projects that are sort of smaller or larger than that, you know, sort of are outside that sweet spot. But of course, you know, it will depend on the type of project, the type of offtake the health of the state utility, which can be a huge issue.

[00:12:32] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And then of course the size of the grid. I mean, there are some, some of the mega projects that have been announced in Africa. Such as some of the green hydrogen projects in, in Mauritania or Namibia. You know, these, these projects dwarf the national grid and even though they’re meant solely for, for hydrogen production, I mean, I think they are, you know, it’s, it’s a little, it’s almost a little bit comical to think about you know, building that much capacity in a country that has, you know, maybe 5 percent or 10 percent of that total capacity on the grid and a massive energy access gap.

[00:12:56] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, and you know, green hydrogen is I think a topic for another day, we’d love to pick your brain on that because it’s a whole other thing, but for now we’ll, we’ll stay to stay kind of close to this theme of buzzy finance, kind of emerging, emerging market investment terms that we hear all the time that we’d love to get your take on to kind of go a little bit deeper.

[00:13:17] ROSE MUTISO: So In prepping for this episode, we asked you what you’re most excited about, and you said making blended finance creative. So the term blended finance is also so overused now in energy development circles that it’s kind of almost become meaningless, meaningless, or at least kind of boring. So what is it that you find so beautiful and exciting about it that can kind of take it out of this you know you know, corner of, you know, tired, overused finance terms that energy people like to talk about?

[00:13:45] ROSE MUTISO: Mm

[00:13:47] BENJAMIN ATTIA: that the term has sort of lost its meaning in many senses and, you know, maybe a very simple definition of blended finance that we could use as sort of an operating definition for the conversation here is, you know, how I like to define it is sort of mixing market rate and sub market rate capital. for at the project level on that could be that can take a variety of different forms. And one of the reasons I think the blended finance space is so exciting is because there is quite a lot of room for creative innovation. And, and I think that, you know, generally you want financing to be boring, right?

[00:14:20] BENJAMIN ATTIA: You want sort of cookie cutter PPA projects that are easy to finance, that you know, the, the contracts are clear and sort of almost commoditized in some ways. But I do think that that That’s sort of a stage that most emerging markets, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa and parts of Southeast Asia, I think, I mean, it’s, it’s becoming a little bit more true in, in India and Pakistan and a few other markets, but in general you know, this is, this is hard to do and projects typically look a little bit more bespoke and when, and when you’re in that sort of financing environment having some creative sort of leeway or wiggle room to, to set up contracts, use catalytic capital and creative ways to crowd in private investment.

[00:14:58] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I think that’s, you know, this is something that we, we desperately need. I think part of what helps,  you know, sort of see blended finance innovations you know, really become useful is that they, they have typically a much higher multiple crowd in multiple than some of the base level public finance options that can come along with financing projects that we’ve seen historically.

[00:15:16] BENJAMIN ATTIA: So in general using things like guarantees or first loss capital can actually crowd in quite a lot more private investment that is a sort of market rate capital. Rather than just using political risk guarantees political risk insurance, you know, some of these types of more traditional mechanisms.

[00:15:32] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And so I think that’s why people are so excited about it, but I totally agree that I think the term has become sort of almost too broad to have real meaning but I think that, that sort of broadness or that breadth really does lend itself to leaving a little bit of space for creativity when you need to do that in a bespoke financing situation.

[00:15:49] KATIE AUTH: Yeah, I think that’s really cool and I think, you know, when you talk to folks who work at the development finance institutions They are, what they love most about their jobs is often the fact that the deals are really interesting, and you have to be creative, and you have the opportunity to put pieces together.

[00:16:07] KATIE AUTH: different ways that maybe you haven’t done before. And I think, you know, you could finance energy projects in the U. S. and they’re all going to look basically the same. And so I love your kind of infectious enthusiasm for the puzzle of figuring out how to use different types of finance and guarantees in, in different ways.

[00:16:28] KATIE AUTH: You mentioned a couple different tools that you are excited about, but is there one specific type of combination or one specific type of finance solution that you’re most excited about that you would love to see more of.

[00:16:43] BENJAMIN ATTIA: right now I’m most sort of particularly obsessed with the pivotal role of public guarantees. And I think that one of the things that’s exciting there is that they can actually have market based pricing, right? So it’s actually not really a concessional instrument. And one of the reasons that this is cool is, you know, you basically can get some credit enhancement that is market rate, You can use them very flexibly to make guarantees against political risk, regulatory risk, commercial risks.

[00:17:09] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And then what it does is really instill a lot of investor confidence because you’re offering recourse for some of these risks that are otherwise very difficult to mitigate. And it’s sort of a bit of a shortcut or maybe even a little bit of a hack to get around trying to mitigate some of these risks directly.

[00:17:26] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And what they can do is basically lower some of the total level of concessionality in some of these blended deals. , and they really do that at a market rate. So the, I think this is pretty underutilized,  right now. I think it’s,, I think the stat is something like 4 or 5 percent of total MDB commitments are, guarantees of various forms.

[00:17:44] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And there are some estimates that say

[00:17:46] ROSE MUTISO: lower than I thought.

[00:17:47] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Yeah, it’s quite low. It’s, it’s a very small part of total commitments. And the mobilization ratios, you know, are estimated, of course, I mean, this is, this is hard to do, but estimated at, you know, up, up to being as high as 5 to 1 and that’s compared to sort of the, the total average for MDB climate finance, which is around 30 cents on the dollar.

[00:18:04] BENJAMIN ATTIA: So I think, you know, this is something that MDBs have been maybe a little bit hesitant to do because it can sort of eat into their you know, the security around their AAA ratings a little bit, but I do think that there is sort of some, some room to run in terms of using guarantees at a market rate flexible, flexibly to mitigate some of these risks that are otherwise very difficult to mitigate directly.

[00:18:24] KATIE AUTH: Yeah. I had no idea that the use of guarantees was, was that limited. I knew there was room to grow, but I guess I’m, I tend to think more about the bilateral lenders like the Development Finance Corporation and other kind of bilateral DFIs, which I do think use guarantees at least a little more, but that’s really striking that the MDBs

[00:18:44] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, definitely. I think if I was to play like clean energy finance and emerging markets bingo, I would have blended finance, bankable project, guarantees. Those would be kind of the terms on my list. So that’s, that’s kind of quite striking. just circling back to where you started off when answering this question, which is this.

[00:19:05] ROSE MUTISO: I love this quote. So you said, generally, you want finance to be boring. Is that the destination? You know, you do it, you’re kind of trying to create all of this interesting, exciting finance innovations and thinking through kind of creative ways to do bespoke in a setting where you, bespoke is kind of, you know, essentially what you have to do instead of boring.

[00:19:25] ROSE MUTISO: Is, is a destination boring that bespoke goes away and everything becomes boring? Or do you think that there’s a way to bring the innovation into the boring that maybe even these kind of boring markets that work seamlessly could, could, could learn something from, from this kind of what we’re, what’s happening in that kind of bespoke creative world?

[00:19:46] BENJAMIN ATTIA: That’s a really interesting question. To be honest, I haven’t thought about that much before, but think my, my inclination is that you get creative on the way to being boring. And I think the reason for that is, you know, eventually if, you know, you see power systems mature regulatory environments become more stable macro environments become more stable.

[00:20:06] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Over time, you know, projects do sort of naturally fall almost maybe asymptotically into sort of standard contract structures that are easily repeatable, easily scalable. And what you’re doing is you’re reducing project development costs, right? And project preparation costs and the soft costs that go into the, to developing and financing projects.

[00:20:24] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And I think that’s, that’s sort of naturally where markets tend to go. And maybe when you face some sort of aggregated risks, some of which are real and some of which are perceived that are, that are a little bit higher and a little bit harder to mitigate the creativity is a way through that on your way to being boring.

[00:20:40] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Whether that goes the other way, I think that’s probably true on the business model side more so than on the financing side. Um, so, so I’ve done some work in the past on looking at ways where sort of Clean Energy Projects, particularly Distributed Clean Energy Projects in Sub Saharan Africa, actually have some business model lessons for utilities in developed markets, and, and particularly utilities in advanced electricity markets, where they may be expanding some of their service offerings outside of just selling electrons, and actually looking broader to say, well, maybe we can offer EV charging, or even, sort of, power generation.

[00:21:13] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Petrol station discounts for our customers. And we’ve seen some examples of this, where you can offer other energy services rather than just energy. And I think those lessons are mostly coming from the distributed sector, mostly in Sub Saharan Africa and India, where this is sort of the core and fundamental business model.

[00:21:34] BENJAMIN ATTIA: So I think there’s business model lessons that go both ways. But I think the financing, it’s really creative on the way to being boring. I think that’s, I think that’s sort of the tendency of markets, at least.

[00:21:44] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. Uh, I, and I, I think you, you handled really well kind of my, my sub question, which was about this idea of cross learning which then ties into my next question which is we’re moving more into your kind of the research hat, which is like, you know a hat that is a big part of your professional identity.

[00:22:01] ROSE MUTISO: So, you know, throughout the various iterations of a career, regardless of who you’ve been working for, even in the private sector, you’ve been doing research. So you nerdy, you nerd out on the super nitty gritty, deeply unsexy details of energy markets. And what is it that you love about being a professional, a professional researcher?

[00:22:18] ROSE MUTISO: So you could, you know, have virtually any, Any role in this kind of finance, markets, investment space why research? Why, why this lane?

[00:22:31] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Yeah, I, I think maybe two reasons. The first is sort of to that point where I, I think the energy transition is sort of endlessly fascinating. There are a thousand angles to look at it. It’s an extremely complicated system. And I think that’s sort of, for the same reasons I think that’s why I love research, um, researches.

[00:22:48] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I can spend time getting as deep in the weeds on something as I like and then there will always be another angle to look at the problem, or an adjacent problem, or an interconnected problem to sort of pull the thread on and, and follow sort of the, the trail of crumbs. And I, I think that, at least with the way that my mind works, I really enjoy that.

[00:23:07] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And I think it, it helps, um, to feel like I get paid to learn. I think that’s, that’s probably my favorite part of my career so far is

[00:23:15] ROSE MUTISO: I totally, totally, that resonates so much with me.

[00:23:18] BENJAMIN ATTIA: yeah, it’s, it’s, um, it is just, I love getting paid to learn. Um, and I think maybe the second part is that the, the energy transition is complicated and it’s a systems problem and it’s, it can be confusing at times.

[00:23:31] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And I think sort of re the, the lens of research, allows you to take sort of a very big picture systems level view while still reading, you know, very boring regulatory documents and getting into the weeds probably more than, than most people would care to do. But you, you do sort of have the ability to get the big picture where sometimes more operational roles you know, to really focus on execution, you, you sort of lose the forest for the trees a little bit, or you’re at least at risk of doing

[00:23:57] BENJAMIN ATTIA: that. Um, so I really appreciate the perch of sort of just looking across the entire transition and, and trying to see themes and trends and patterns and that sort of

[00:24:05] ROSE MUTISO: And you know what? I do, I do love also that you have this kind of exit, exit you know, off ramp for when you successfully make a certain, like, part of emerging markets, clean energy finance boring. you just kind of use your research hat to jump into a new, a new kind of like messy, messy problem.

[00:24:21] ROSE MUTISO: And then when that becomes like sorted out and now it’s like in the world of like well functioning, boring finance, you can kind of jump to the next. So that’s, that, that, does that, does that, uh, resonate with you or am I just editorializing?

[00:24:32] BENJAMIN ATTIA: definitely. Yeah, I think, yeah, maybe to put those two points together once financing clean energy and emerging markets becomes boring there will be another angle, there will be another adjacent problem. And I, I, I don’t think I’ll live long enough to run out of interesting questions or work long enough, at least, uh, in, in the energy transition.

[00:24:51] BENJAMIN ATTIA: So I, I, I really appreciate the ability to sort of go as deep as needed or as wanted on a problem and then sort of move to the next thing and sort of put all the puzzle pieces together and get a big picture view of what’s going on.

[00:25:03] KATIE AUTH: So one question that I have is about The particular ways in which who you who you do research for has impacted your approach. So you’re a researcher, but you’re you’re obviously not in academia outside of your Ph. D. And I think throughout the course of your career, the majority of your like clients, the consumers of your research have been private sector companies.

[00:25:30] KATIE AUTH: How do you think your role as a researcher is different, if at all, because of that? Like, Does it constrain you in any way? Does it liberate you? Does it influence the questions that you ask, depending on who, who your target is?

[00:25:44] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Absolutely. Yeah. I think, you know, that there’s sort of the academic hat that I wear allows me quite a lot of intellectual freedom to ask questions that may or may not have sort of commercial impact. I’d like to think that the, the work I’m doing in my doctoral research does have some real world commercial impact, but, but it wouldn’t have to.

[00:26:03] BENJAMIN ATTIA: But I think in the professional research setting that the, What you are solving for is trying to provide insight into a market where it is missing in order to help guide decisions and that’s sometimes that’s investment decisions or corporate strategy decisions or you know manufacturing decisions, technology decisions, things like that and I think that you know, there is sort of a beauty in saying that my research has been successful.

[00:26:29] BENJAMIN ATTIA: in a professional setting has sort of direct relevance or direct impact on the world versus some of the academic work that I’ve done in, in the past you sort of write it and publish it and then really just cross your fingers that someone will come across it and find it useful which, I think there’s beauty in that too but I think there is sort of a, there’s a very satisfying You’re sort of answering the question of is this useful before you start rather than afterwards in the professional research setting and I think that’s You know looking at who is making these decisions and what kind of information they’re missing And how can we creatively address you know these information gaps?

[00:27:04] BENJAMIN ATTIA: You know I find that quite satisfying because it sort of directly you know, guides decisions and, you know, and I’ve seen in my career, you know, real world impact and real world decisions that have been made based on exactly the work that I’ve done strategies that have been set, investments that have been made, that sort of thing, and I, and I find that, you know, very sort of very liberating or very satisfying.

[00:27:24] BENJAMIN ATTIA: There are some constraints. You know, obviously you need to make sure that the work is directly relevant to the audience before you do it, which is something that is not necessarily true in academic or other settings. But I do think that, you know, as you sort of screen potential research questions with that lens, it does give you a very helpful sense for sort of what research is worth

[00:27:47] BENJAMIN ATTIA: doing. And what research maybe is, is you know, sort of better left to other settings.

[00:27:52] ROSE MUTISO: cool, Ben, and I think this is a really great note to close the interview on you are actually our last, uh, guest of the season. Um, we’ll have one more episode over after this, which will just be a season closer with Katie and myself, but One thing that we started doing at the top of this, this is our third season doing the High Energy Planet podcast.

[00:28:13] ROSE MUTISO: And this season we started asking each of our guests the same closing question. And it’s been really, really interesting to see what everyone says in response. And, and you’re kind of closing out our kind of big experiment about a big experiment, road testing this, this question. So here we go.

[00:28:28] ROSE MUTISO: I hope you’re ready. Ben. Looking back, what is the one thing that has changed the most about you? So, about you, not about blended finance. What is the thing that has changed the most about you, Ben, since you started your career?

[00:28:42] BENJAMIN ATTIA: that is a very good question. Let me take a second to think about that.

[00:28:47] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Yeah. think I’ve become a little bit more, let me put it this way. I think I went from sort of a very narrow, almost blinders on sort of approach to research. Yeah. To a much more systems level thinking type approach.

[00:29:04] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I started most of my research in, in the early parts of my career and in my sort of graduate studies was focused on sort of costs and techno economics for solar energy. And I moved into, uh, working on solar energy demand forecasting and, and techno economic forecasting in my first professional research setting.

[00:29:23] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And that sort of broadened into Power and Emerging Markets and Distributed Renewables merged into a Scenarios Research Practice and, and further on into Scenarios further on into my career. And now I’ve sort of taken a more financial lens to some of the questions that I’ve been answering of late.

[00:29:41] BENJAMIN ATTIA: But I think, I think I went from sort of a researcher that was very focused or niche or pigeonholed looking at sort of a very narrow set of topics. To really having a broader view of the energy system, the transition and just sort of how pieces interconnect in a way that I think is a relatively, you know, somewhat recent development in my thinking and in my career where you really have to see the whole picture and even just looking at, you know, renewables are a huge part of the story, but they’re only part of power, which is only part of the energy system, which is only part of the emissions challenge.

[00:30:13] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And these things look very different geographically, sectorally. And I, and I think, you know, that, that sort of broadening from looking very, very in the weeds at a very narrow set of topics to looking broader and seeing how the system really works and interconnects to itself. I think that’s probably the biggest change in how I sort of approach my career, approach research.

[00:30:34] BENJAMIN ATTIA: And I think that maybe the, the sort of sappier answer here is that, uh, as. come to realize how much I don’t know. I think when you look at a very narrow topic, you know, you can sort of feel like you have some level of mastery over a very small set of, of things. But I think the, the sort of broader your perspective is that there is this almost sort of Dunning Kruger like you realize how little you actually know.

[00:30:56] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Um, and I think I’m in that, that phase of, of my research career where there is just so much to learn, so much to understand. It is such a sort of massive, complicated system. And I think that’s, there’s almost an awe of like, how could I possibly get my head around all of this? But let’s, you know, sort of take steps to, to expand my perspective.

[00:31:15] BENJAMIN ATTIA: But I think that’s, that’s maybe the other sort of more personal change is that it’s, the more you learn, the more you realize you know very little about what’s actually going on. Um, There’s a humility that comes with that.

[00:31:25] KATIE AUTH: I love both of those answers so much and I think we need much more of that across all of the energy sector and probably all of life, honestly. Um, but those were great.

[00:31:37] ROSE MUTISO: All right, so now it’s time to do our very, very final bit, which is a short circuit. It’s a rapid fire round of questions. The only rule is don’t overthink it. So just super quick. First thing that comes to your mind. So are you ready?

[00:31:53] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I’m ready.

[00:31:55] ROSE MUTISO: Okay. Which, which clean energy technology has the biggest potential to change the world?

[00:31:59] ROSE MUTISO: That’s

[00:32:01] KATIE AUTH: we should be more optimistic about global finance, global climate finance because

[00:32:08] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Because there’s room for creativity and institutional reforms are actually happening.

[00:32:14] KATIE AUTH: yes, I love that.

[00:32:16] ROSE MUTISO: So we know you’re an amateur woodworker. So What’s your favorite kind of furniture to build?

[00:32:23] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Uh, I am a very, very amateur woodworker. Um, so

[00:32:28] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I’ve, I’ve built some, so I’ve built, I’ve built some bookcases and things like that for my daughters, which I’ve really enjoyed working on. Uh, my current project is a chess board, uh, which is taking me a

[00:32:40] ROSE MUTISO: Oh, that’s really, really cool. Oh, that’s cool. Yeah, I once was,

[00:32:44] BENJAMIN ATTIA: but

[00:32:45] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, that’s good. You know, I once tried to, I once tried to knit and so, but I never got beyond the, the scarf or like just the scarf level. So that’s, you know, um, you know, it seems like you’re doing diverse things as an amateur woodworker more than I did as an amateur knitter,

[00:32:58] KATIE AUTH: There’s still time, Rose. Uh, okay. What is a book you read recently that has stuck with you in some way?

[00:33:08] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I read The Price is Wrong by Brett Christophers, which makes some very interesting arguments about a lot of things that we were talking about today, actually, around financing renewables and potentially the role of public and private capital in financing the transition. I definitely recommend it. I don’t agree with everything in there, but I think it was very thought provoking.

[00:33:28] KATIE AUTH: Sounds good.

[00:33:29] ROSE MUTISO: Okay. So final one, the world I want to build for my kids is blank.

[00:33:35] BENJAMIN ATTIA: A world that is net zero, sustainable, stable, and prosperous.

[00:33:43] ROSE MUTISO: All right,

[00:33:43] ROSE MUTISO: That’s a very unambitious list.

[00:33:47] BENJAMIN ATTIA: I’ll play a very small part in that, but,

[00:33:50] KATIE AUTH: Hopefully we all

[00:33:51] BENJAMIN ATTIA: That’s the world I want

[00:33:52] ROSE MUTISO: every small, bit counts. Yeah, no, we, we, we’re very much with you on

[00:33:55] ROSE MUTISO: that.

[00:33:56] KATIE AUTH: Ben, thank you so much for being with us and spending this time with us. It was great to chat and learn more about what you do and how you see the world. And, uh,

[00:34:05] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Thank you guys so much for having me. This was a great conversation. I really

[00:34:07] ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, thanks, Ben. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for helping us nerd out on finance.

[00:34:12] BENJAMIN ATTIA: Anytime. Anytime.

[00:34:14] KATIE AUTH: that’s it for today’s show. High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, matching policy makers with evidence based pathways to a high energy future for everyone. Find out more at energyforgrowth. org and share your questions and thoughts with us at Energy for Growth on LinkedIn.

[00:34:40] ROSE MUTISO: If you liked today’s episode, be sure to rate and review the podcast and tell a friend about us. Audrey Zenner is our executive producer, and join us next time for more High Energy Planet.