Maria Rampa: I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to Engineering Reimagined. There are times when engineering is a synonym for disruption. Numerous disruptive forces in the global economy right now owe their existence to engineering. From AI and robotics, to micro medical procedures and quantum computing, engineers are enabling key disruptors that are changing the way we live, work and play. Nowhere is this change and innovation more stark than in the energy sector, where the rules of generation, distribution, transmission and consumption are being over-turned by new waves of engineers who are unbound by the past.
With this newfound status of digital disruptors, engineers are seeking to make an impact, not just in their fields of practice, but more broadly across business and society.
Join Paul Gleeson from Aurecon and Leeanne Bond, owner of Breakthrough Energy and a professional non-executive director, as they discuss the future of energy and how engineers are not only contributing to the technological advances of the 21st century, but are transitioning from executive engineering careers to sitting on some of the most powerful boards in the country, helping to shape and create decisions in an entirely different way.
This interview was recorded at the World Engineers Convention, held in Melbourne, Australia, in 2019.
For those listening outside of Australia, when NEM is mentioned in this conversation Leeanne is referring to Australia’s National Electricity Market.
Paul Gleeson: Hello and welcome to the Engineering Reimagined podcast recorded live at the World Engineers Convention in Melbourne. My name is Paul Gleeson. I'm the managing director for energy resources and manufacturing at global engineering design and advisory company Aurecon. Much of our project work has focused on innovation in the sector, helping organisations transition to a low carbon future.
Today I'm interviewing Leeanne Bond, the owner of Breakthrough Energy and professional non-executive director. Leeanne has taken her extensive experience in design, advisory, projects, and management, and converted it into a governance role on the boards of some very large organisations. She currently sits on the board of Snowy Hydro, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, LNG Limited, as well as being the chair of Synatech. Welcome Leeanne.
Leeanne Bond: Hi Paul. Thanks for having me.
Paul Gleeson: I think if we start with the subject matter of the debate you're in today, here at the World Engineers Convention. So if we start with an easy question, what do you think our energy system will look like in 2050?
Leeanne Bond: It is a good, easy question. I'm working obviously on Snowy 2.0 which is pumped storage. That'll be a big part of the solution. There'll be battery storage for support of the network and I think there'll be some hydrogen. But 2050, what role that will play, I'm not sure.
Paul Gleeson: We might be exporting most of it by then.
Leeanne Bond: Could well be a whole new industry.
Paul Gleeson: All right, so flowing from that, when you think about how Australians live today, can you picture what a net zero economy would look like for Australia?
Leeanne Bond: Well, I think first of all, we will have owned our energy use. So as individuals we will have actually thought about it and I think we're in that position now of thinking about it. So we will have made major winds on reduction of use and efficiency. Reducing waste, just like we did when we're in drought with water, we'll get a better appreciation of the resource and the value of that resource. As far as energy use for a household, I think there will be an integrated solution and we'll use different technologies for different things. It may well be electric cars which are feeding into our system, solar, and support from the NEM.
Paul Gleeson: If you think about vehicle emissions, through the use of regulation, they've been steadily reducing for the last 40 years. Why do you think we've not been able to follow the same sort of trajectory in the electricity sector?
Leeanne Bond: Well in fuel, in vehicles, we have reduced emissions but there is still a whole emission space which is not carbon related, it's other pollution. I think we shouldn't forget not everything's about carbon. That's why I still think electric vehicles removes those particulates and the air pollution in cities. As far as transitioning electricity, I think a lot of its technology. The cost of renewables has fallen remarkably and probably quicker than we thought. It was always going to happen but hadn't happened, and I think it's actually on the way now. So it could well be time and place. The other thing is the internet of things and just the ability through digital and other techniques for us to integrate all this, which has probably been a little while coming. I think it is a transition that's got its time. A precious resource and we should treat it.
Paul Gleeson: When you talked about that the ability to really efficiently or optimally orchestrate all of the distributed energy resources on both the demand and the generation side is... That feels to me like that's probably the one of the big steps to come. We could see it as potential, but at the moment it's a concept.
Leeanne Bond: Yeah, I think it's emerging. The whole peer-to-peer trading, allowing technology to actually make decisions for us. I actually don't care when my pool pump runs. We've been doing that for a long time, putting that on off-peak tariffs where I live, but that will probably get extended further. There's a lot of opportunity I think through engineering to build in a lot of energy efficiency which we really are probably not touching. I think it's partly the need. If you've got plentiful supply, maybe the need hasn't been there in the past, but I think people have realised this is a precious resource when we should treat it more carefully.
Paul Gleeson: I think that there's definitely a journey of education and awareness for the broader community about how the electricity system works. I think everyone's been on a crash course for the last few years, which to me has been fun because it means it's been mainstream news. I guess my favourite subject matter area is in the paper every day. Not always in the right context, but at least we have a few wins to talk about now.
Leeanne Bond: On the panel that I was just on at the conference, that came up that we don't want to be on the front page of the newspaper and I do agree with that. We don't want to be on the front page of the paper for the wrong reasons, but I actually think it's good that the general community are getting involved in the debate of energy and I still draw a parallel to water and having lived through drought and then flood in Queensland, the community became very engaged and they really helped that community to respond to those events. So I think we haven't really scratched the surface in energy and it is a complex industry. We struggle in the industry to understand it, so we need to become better at giving very simple messages to people and actionable things that they can do in reducing their energy use or being more aware of what they're doing.
Paul Gleeson: I absolutely agree, and I think that that's why I'm actually happy that it's in the press, because when it's out of mind, it's certainly taken for granted and it's not going to be used optimally. So that's why I think in increasing awareness... I think Australians inherently, most of them, most of us, love the idea of solar because most of the time you're getting smashed by it out there, and the thought that you could actually do something useful with it has a lot of appeal. But then understanding the time value of energy and as you said, scheduling, how much of your load can you schedule to match the generation profile of either solar panels on your house or the solar farm hundreds of kilometres away that you're getting it from. That takes a level of awareness that we need to raise. But I think people are more than capable of getting it just as they did with valuing water.
Leeanne Bond: And I think wind blowing at night. Traditionally low demand period. Utilising all of that. But I think the solution is to not make people make those decisions in the moment, but to make it easy for them. And that's where I think engineering can help us.
Paul Gleeson: Absolutely. So that's a good point for me to move on a little bit. Do you think that the quality of conversations that are happening around energy sector transformation, and more broadly climate transition risk, do you think those conversations are improving?
Leeanne Bond: I think they are. I'm an optimist so I actually do think we're going to get to a solution. It is a little bit jerky at the moment. Our responses, maybe in hindsight, could be a bit more structured, but I think we are getting there and I think that all sectors, government and corporate and individuals are all trying to have that conversation. But it's got a little bit of a way to go yet.
Paul Gleeson: One of the things that I look at with hydrogen, it's not the only new technology that's coming, but I think it's one that captures the imagination for quite a few of us because one of the things I think we really need to tackle if we are going to transition to a low carbon future is how will we create meaningful jobs in the regions. I think the transition to predominantly renewables as a source of generation, you've got a few construction jobs that's good, but what's the long term things that could replace in the decades ahead some of those fossil fuel jobs?
Leeanne Bond: I think, as a process engineer, I hear Gladstone and Townsville vying for the hydrogen economy of the future, and I think we can repurpose a lot of our infrastructure and create something pretty special in Australia. We've got a great resource in renewable, which is not all around the world, so we may be able to build an export economy out of that. As I say, the economics of doing that is still to be shone a light on, but I think it's opening the way.
Paul Gleeson: Yes, and I think to a point you made earlier, if you look at just how much the cost reduction has surprised all of us in the renewable space, we have a few good parallels we can look at for things like hydrogen, where we see that that commitment and that expansion of new tech will get us started on that cost curve. The other thing I'd say about it, that I think resonates with quite a few people, is that the most obvious buyers for that zero emission fuel are some of the same trading partners we've been selling energy to for decades, just in different form.
Leeanne Bond: Yeah, it's different form. That's where I think it's going to be a whole suite of different solutions and I'm sure hydrogen will have part of that. I don't know which part exactly.
Paul Gleeson: Yes. Let's move onto some questions about you and your career. Perhaps some safer territory. You've worked certainly in project delivery and in the advisory side of engineering, but you shifted to broader leadership and board positions. So, can you talk to me about what motivated that shift?
Leeanne Bond: Yeah, I'd like to say that I sat down and thought about my career and decided that I wanted to develop a board portfolio. But that wasn't actually how it happened. We're here at an engineering conference with Engineers Australia, and where it came from was I was actually the president of Engineers Australia in Queensland in 2002. Did a lot of public speaking, and through that was invited a couple of years later to join a board by one of the members who was chair of a power generation company. I just got a phone call. I didn't really know what a board was, didn't know what governance meant, and I had the presence of mind when asked if I would be interested in the board to say, "I'll call you back." I bought myself some time and promptly went around the office and asked, "What does a board do? Is this a good thing or should I run?"
Eventually I rang the company secretary. The company that I was working for had been listed a couple of years before and she said to me, "You've got to do this. It'll be a great personal development for you." So I thought, "I'll take it on and if I don't like it I can just politely say I'm too busy at the end of my term." And of course I just absolutely love being on boards. I get to work in very high level strategic discussions with very impressive professional people. And so after a couple of years I thought I want to do more of this. And that's when I made the big decision, which was the decision to leave my executive career behind and try to put together a board portfolio.
Paul Gleeson: Early on, did you have any trouble staying above the issues that were getting presented?
Leeanne Bond: It's actually a very difficult personal challenge to do that. Probably my first few meetings I was trying to prove that I was worthy of being in the room, so I'd be wanting to comment on everything and ask really important questions.
And luckily I was on a board with some very experienced directors and one of them took me aside and said, "You don't actually have to prove yourself. Just go with the flow a bit and be a bit more strategic." So yeah, it was a little bit of a pressure going into a boardroom. Once I got comfortable with boards, then it was more about not getting too involved in the work. There's a saying, eyes in fingers out, and you have to tell yourself sometimes it's very fun, you want to get involved and do it, but that's actually not your job, and if you try to do that, you're getting in the way at the CEO and the management team.
So it's, it's very important to make that break. It was hard at first to see the results of what I was doing. But after a while I realised it's just the time. So when I am making contribution, I might not see the result of that for three months or six months, but eventually you'll see, "Oh, I actually contributed to that conversation." And you can then enjoy that coming through later. But it's not as immediate as when you're an executive.
Paul Gleeson: When you started that journey, were there many other engineers on the boards that you were on?
Leeanne Bond: Well, actually I was invited on by an engineer, but it was because he was the only engineer. He was the chair and he was very aware that eventually he would retire from that position and wanted to replace his skillset. So I came on as the second engineer on a power generation company. Over time we actually had three or four engineers of different disciplines. But in most boardrooms, I'm the only engineer. Even now. On the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, I'm the only engineer. There's a lot of people with a lot more experience than me in finance and I'm learning a lot from them, but they also look to me for project delivery expertise.
Paul Gleeson: That definitely feeds into the bit that I'm interested in, which is your view on... What you think the contribution of engineers can be at the board level?
Leeanne Bond: I think we have a different training to a lot of the other professions, and I saw that on my first board where when we were talking about particular issues, sometimes the rest of the board members would turn to me and say, "What do you think Leeanne?" It was because engineers are problem solvers, so we have a way of structuring problems to work out the underlying causes and what the solutions might be. So compared to a legal or a financial training, it is a little bit different.
Sometimes I would say something that they hadn't thought about. I think the diversity of background and thought is what we can bring to a boardroom. It was interesting when I was on a board with four different engineers, civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, we actually had diversity of engineering too. We sort of forget that we're all not the same either, but we do have the same structured way of thinking about issues.
Paul Gleeson: You've had a variety roles in which you've tried to improve the diversity in our profession. Can you talk to us about the benefits that you believe diversity brings? I think for me, I'm particularly curious about that in industries undergoing significant transformation.
Leeanne Bond: I did a podcast recently on gender diversity, and I was quoted. I've always been asked what's it like to be a female engineer? Having been an engineer for 30 years, I had to get used to that question and what the answer was. And my answer is always, "I don't know. What's it like to be a male engineer? I've never been one." It's a bit of fun but really it's what's it like to be an engineer, and why is engineering better off with a diversity of different views? In the case of gender, I think women can bring different life experiences, different ways of approaching things, not because of the way their brains are necessarily wired, but just because of differences in society and the way that we think about problems.
But in background as well. In teams, engineering teams, having a diversity of different people with different backgrounds who've seen different things. One of my earliest experiences was in business, was actually marketing in the oil industry. I still draw on the things that I learned back then when I, two years out of uni thought I'd thrown my career away because I wasn't doing technical things. I was actually laying down commercial acumen that I really appreciate because I might not have got the experience for 10 years if I hadn't had that start.
Paul Gleeson: Brilliant. Just to dig a bit deeper on the idea of sectors in transformation. You're in my favourite area, energy. Do you put any value or extra value in diversity, and let's say gender diversity, in teams when you're in a sector that's not static?
Leeanne Bond: I think in any sector there's been a lot of research that says diverse groups of people come up with better decisions than non-diverse groups. In an area that's under transition, I think having different voices and maybe people who are not from that industry that will ask the obvious question that no one in the industry will ask. I think it's not just gender related, but having a diversity of different backgrounds is going to throw light on things. I would say the first board that I joined, I was the first new director for seven years and I was very worried about that because I thought, "What if I raise something and they've decided that five years ago?"
But they took the view that every question I asked was an opportunity for them to re-examine why did they do the things that they did. So I think in anything we do, if we take that opportunity and look at a systems approach to things and look at are there other ways of thinking that we may well come to the same decision, but at least we're better to have considered alternatives.
Paul Gleeson: I think that concept you raise about the value of questions and questioning and certainly not accepting the status quo, I think that's one thing I've been reflecting on a bit recently. Compared to when I started as a graduate many years ago in the energy sector and I was given what I now realise were just a lot of rules of thumb. Certainly we did some things from first principles, but there's also a lot of rules of thumb that a chief engineer gave you as a grad and off you went. I now look at those and almost none of those rules of thumb would apply in the electricity system today. There were given to me as though they were absolutes.
Leeanne Bond: And not going to change.
Paul Gleeson: And not going to change. So I think you see what a risk that can create. It was not a risk at the time because it was a very static sector and they held true, but very risky now.
Leeanne Bond: I found in my consulting world, I would go between different customers and different industries within the process industries, but still in and out of oil refineries, fertiliser plants and whatever. And even just moving between companies, you'd see very different ways of doing things. I used to like to cross-pollinate different ideas. And even in the power generation industry I would... If were talking about something in safety I would go and have a look at what someone else is doing, because it's the same issue but they've got a very different perspective. So I think that's very healthy.
Paul Gleeson: If you had to pick one skill that all new engineers should have if they want to succeed, could you come up with a singular one for me?
Leeanne Bond: I think it's critical thinking. It is something we inherently assume all engineers have. But it is a skill that has to be honed, and you mentioned being given a set of rules of thumb. You can start off with a basis for critical thinking, but you also do need to bring in new knowledge, and after a little while you can start integrating that and then you can start challenging the people that are 10 or 20 years ahead of you because you actually have got something to offer. I think that's the journey of a young engineer as they become a professional. To me, a professional applies critical thinking and backs their judgement.
Paul Gleeson: Well, thank you for indulging me on some of those. Leeanne, I must say it's always fantastic to talk to you. I'm extremely grateful that we have you and your brain sitting on some of the most important boards out there for us right now. So yes, thank you for taking the time.
Leeanne Bond: Thank you, and I definitely encourage engineers to think about how they can contribute in these conversations as well.
Maria Rampa: We hope you enjoyed the first episode in season 2 of Engineering Reimagined. Over the next few months, we’ll be releasing more episodes from the World Engineers Convention so to keep up to date, make sure you have subscribed to us on Apple or are following us on Spotify. Until next time, thanks for listening!