Power to change: an interview with Alison Kay

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Our new Global Sector Leader for Power & Utilities takes on the role at a critical time. We asked Alison Kay what she sees as the energy sector's top issues, EY's role in tackling them and why we need more women leaders.

“No other industry touches on as many aspects of human life and has the potential to change people's lives as much as power and utilities.”

Alison Kay, our new Global Sector Leader for Power & Utilities, takes a holistic view of the team she leads and its role in driving change. Appointed in July 2013, Alison comes to the top job at a time of great transition for the sector and sees significant opportunities for EY to influence and impact the most pressing issues.

Big political agenda needed

The energy trilemma – the trade-offs between the three dimensions of energy security, social equity (energy access and affordability) and environmental impact mitigation (climate change and local pollution) – is a focus for all energy policy makers and companies.

“For the developed markets, the critical issues are security of energy supply and affordability. In most developed countries, energy costs are only going one way, affecting consumers and industry. Exploiting new energy sources is critical and will only be achieved through technical innovation.”

“However, it is equally critical to have the infrastructure to transport energy. In these days of financial constraints, the ability of governments to invest in that infrastructure is more limited than it has been historically.”

“A key challenge in supply security will be creating interconnections to allow the supply of power across geographic boundaries. This requires a big political agenda.”

In the emerging markets, the priority is the building out of the generating capacity.

“According to the World Bank, about 20% of the world’s population is still without access to electricity, while 25% do not have access to safe water – almost all of these people live in the developing world. This is a huge hindrance to economic growth,” she says.

“We must be proactive, not passive”

EY has an important role to play in meeting these challenges, according to Alison, who says the organization is better placed than many to make a real difference.

Her vision is for EY to be seen as a leading voice on these issues and a proactive, not passive, participant in helping to resolve them.

“Emerging markets need investment, capital and technology. We have a broad network, and I see it is our role to act as the catalyst to bring investors, companies and resources together. We can help craft a market in these countries to build out more affordable energy into emerging economies.”

Diversity brings better decisions

Alison is also determined to redress the significant under-representation of women in the sector.

“There is a real opportunity for EY to build on all the work we do around the women's agenda and leadership agenda more broadly.”

The issue is about far more than equity. “Bringing diversity will bring different conversations and different perspectives,” she says.

“My aspiration is to see far more women holding influential positions that can really help make more balanced decisions around the world's energy needs.”

While she has never felt hindered by her gender, women face different challenges in a sector heavily dominated by men.

“Women first have to gain credibility by going the extra mile and showing what they can bring to the conversation. Once this has been demonstrated, they can gain the confidence of colleagues and the board,” Alison says.

“I’ve seen great women in senior roles at utility companies who find it very difficult to break into the C-suite. Without mentoring, coaching and sponsorship, many will drop out of the sector, which would mean a loss of real talent.”

Social obligations becoming more important

After an 18-year career in power and utilities, Alison is still drawn to the sector because of its intellectual challenges and potential to make a positive, far-reaching difference.

“I also find the connection between energy policy and energy agenda exciting in terms of how one can influence that for the better good. For companies, balancing stakeholder demands with the social need of the country that you operate in is a real challenge.”

With a strong vision for the way forward, Alison is confident of EY’s ability to help shape the key and emerging issues in the sector.

“There's an opportunity for us to really start thinking about the implications of not having power and water on people's livelihoods, their ability to develop economically and access all sorts of social opportunities.”

“We are a very large organization, and we have an obligation to the working world to go beyond just the pure link in to clients.”

“We are really setting the pace in creating a better working world — this is at the heart of our agenda.”