Interview

VEOLIA BULGARIA: SPEARHEADING ECOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION

Francois Debergh, Veolia Country Director for Bulgaria and Greece, on the French Group's innovations and care for the people and the environment

Literally, Veolia is one of the companies that has the power and the ability to transform the lives of millions of people in a subtle, but crucial way: the Group is a global leader in optimised management of water, energy and waste resources. It plays a major role in the ecological transformation which aims to improve people's lives and preserve and regenerate natural resources.

In Bulgaria, the Group is running the full water cycle of Sofia, as the concessionaire of Sofiyska Voda company, Varna's central heating company and Veolia Solutions Bulgaria, a company for energy and water efficiency services to industrial and commercial clients. Francois Debergh is the person who knows everything about the company's operations in Bulgaria – he has worked for Veolia in different countries for more than 25 years. This is why we talked to him to learn more about the achievements, activities and future plans of this incredible company.

The Veolia Group celebrates a rare anniversary in modern industry – 170 years since its creation. What is the reason for the company’s longevity? What are its greatest achievements?

It is hard to give a short answer while I have been in the Group for only 25 years, but for me the most important things about Veolia are its resilience, especially in times of crisis, and its capability to adapt to new circumstances and to reinvent itself. It started in 1853, as Compagnie Générale des Eaux, a French government initiative to provide clean water and waste management to rapidly growing cities at a time where problems related to sanitary conditions and access to water resources were increasing.

170 years later, Veolia Group still focuses on 3 essential activities which are complimentary: provision of water, waste, and energy services, and is the benchmark company in ecological transformation, aiming to tackle the issues of climate change, pollution and preservation and regeneration of resources at a time when the whole world is facing huge challenges in these areas.

If I should mention some of Veolia's recent achievements, I would single out two of them. Veolia was one of the first French companies that set itself as a purpose and adopted ecological transformation as its core philosophy. Each of our current projects is seen through the prism of 5 main stakeholders: the environment/the Planet, our employees, our customers, our shareholders and the society. The second recent achievement is Veolia's merger with Suez, our main competitor in France. Through this operation, we significantly increased our global footprint and capacity to achieve our goal for ecological transformation.

In the summer of 2023, your concession in Sofia was extended. How will consumers benefit from this? What are your current and future policies in regard to ecological transformation? What are your decarbonisation goals and what are you doing to reach them?

Considering the current situation in the Bulgarian water market and its difficulties, Sofia citizens benefit from getting a reliable and affordable quality water service. We are envisaging an increase of the price by 22%, compared to our 2021 price while all other water operators had an average increase of 70%. Furthermore, in the case of Sofiyska Voda, this will be the first tariff update since the recent inflation peak started.

Sofia consumers also benefit from our investment commitment. Every year, we invest between 25 and 30 million еuros in projects focused on improving the water and sewerage infrastructure as well as in optimization and digitalisation of our processes. Another thing that benefits the people of Sofia is our wastewater treatment plant in Kubratovo. Every year, it saves 70,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions and produces 88% of the energy that Sofiyska Voda consumes from sludge valorization. This is important because it contributes to the company's financial stability – a crucial detail especially now with the volatile energy prices.

Regarding decarbonisation and ecological transformation, I would like to mention a couple of global targets of Veolia. We aim to complete decarbonisation of our activities by 2050, and are investing heavily to achieve this. For example, we are financing 1.6 billion еuro projects dedicated to ending the use of coal in our facilities in Central and Eastern Europe by 2030. Our companies in South America, for their part, are investing 70 million еuros to produce green energy from methane capture on their landfills.

On a local level, at Sofiyska Voda, for example, our goal is to become energy neutral in the next two years. This means that we are going to produce as much green energy as we consume on a yearly basis. This is a big goal, but we are going to achieve it soon with photovoltaic panels that will provide us with the 12% of energy that we miss today to reach full neutrality.

We also consider reducing our general carbon footprint by switching to e-vehicles, for example. I find Veolia's combination of global and local policies in this respect truly fantastic.

The wastewater treatment plant in Kubratovo is one of Veolia's leading green projects in CEE. Can you tell us more about it?

Let's look at it from a holistic perspective. In terms of efficiency, Kubratovo is Veolia's second most efficient wastewater treatment plant in terms of energy consumption. It is totally self-sufficient and even produces some surplus energy. We are also considering how to re-use wastewater in the city water cycle, after all the necessary treatment, of course.

We are very proud that at Kubratovo we save about 70,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. We provide treated sludge to farmers as it is an excellent fertiliser. By doing so, we are reducing the general amount of CO2. Again, this benefits the people of Sofia.

What are your future plans for Veolia in Bulgaria?

The extension of the Sofiyska Voda concession contract obliges us to continue to improve the quality of life of Sofia residents, to produce more energy and to excel in the green transformation.

We would be happy to extend the partnership with Sofia if an opportunity arises to invest in Toplofikatsia Sofia and support this company in its needed transformation journey.

We would also like to expand our business/activities in Bulgaria and to introduce necessary changes such as digitalisation of services and energy and water efficiency projects. We are also looking for acquisition opportunities in waste or energy fields and for expansion in neighbouring countries such as Greece, Albania, and North Macedonia. We also look for strategic partners in Varna to continue the development of Toplofikatsia Varna.

Certainly we want to be even more efficient and to continue contributing to the ecological transformation, decarbonisation, and energy efficiency of Bulgaria and the region. We have the capability, the know-how, the inspiration and the resources to play an active part in this transformation. In its 170 years of history, Veolia has proven that it has the capacity to achieve such an ambitious goal.

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