Taking the pulse of energy journalism in 2021 with Montel's Editor-in-Chief
We speak to Snjólfur Richard Sverrisson, Montel News’ Editor-in-Chief, about the importance of objectivity and holding companies to account, cutting through the greenwash of the energy transition and the challenges of reporting under COVID-19.
This blogpost is authored by a member of Montel's content marketing team.
“We have to be quick, correct and fair but also critical.” That’s how Snjólfur Richard Sverrisson, Montel News’ Editor- in- Chief, summarises the mission statement of Montel Online and his team of energy market journalists. Snjólfur or Richard (depending on whether he’s wearing his Icelandic or British hat), has led Montel’s news team since April 2019 (first jointly, and now solo since the middle of this year) and has over a dozen years' experience as Montel’s European news editor.
Richard’s time at Montel Online has seen the news service swell to over 40 journalists working in 10 different European newsrooms, with a dedicated ‘green team’ to cover renewables, decarbonisation and the energy transition. It’s a significant change from 12 years ago, when Richard’s European team was a lot smaller. “We’ve had to be both reactive in terms of following key market trends, as well as developing in areas that will be of vital importance in the years to come.”
As Europe heads back to work after the summer, we sat down with Richard to take the pulse of energy market journalism in 2021.
Covering the energy transition
The Montel Online Green Desk was created in December 2020, bringing together reporters across Europe, whose work was increasingly focused on the pan-European energy transition that has been gaining speed over the last 5 years, mainly led by the EU institutions. "That's the key driver in the green transition, the policy coming from Brussels,” explains Richard. “That drives all the national legislation. Although increasingly grassroots pressure and environmental groups – Greta Thunberg being a good example – plays a significant role.” The idea was to bring together a whole swathe of reporting that was already being covered by Montel Online, and to produce summaries and overviews that the readership wanted.
Certification of production is going to be a major factor in renewables growth going forward."
That’s why the desk - whose reporters are spread across Berlin, Brussels, Valencia as well the newsrooms in London, Madrid and Oslo - is responsible for producing the Energy Transition Weekly newsletter, in addition to continuous reporting on subjects like Guarantees of Origin, Carbon (EUAs) and increasingly, PPAs. He was “firmly convinced” that weekly commentary on these subjects was exactly what the market was asking for, especially as major actors moved into these areas. “Certification of production is going to be a major factor in renewables growth going forward, on the corporate side.” In turn, this is driven by the EU ETS, which is now covered by a dedicated group of Montel reporters.
A sleeping green giant?
To date, no-one has actually managed to produce a single drop of green hydrogen."
Another subject which increasingly features on the Montel Online newswire is green hydrogen. Touted as a sustainable replacement for gas, a transport fuel as well as a viable storage option, many think it’s the missing piece required to achieve net zero. Richard is more cautious. “There's a lot of greenwashing going on with hydrogen,” he says, noting how almost every major energy company has announced a “pipeline” of one or more projects. ”But if you look at some of the details, it's more ‘we're only going to decide to invest in this if these conditions are met,’” he adds. “So they've always got an escape clause in there.” It’s notable that to date, no-one has actually managed to produce a single drop of green hydrogen.
Speaking truth to power markets
The problem with hydrogen exemplifies the issue with taking PR at face value. Richard wants his reporters to go further. “What I hope to instil is that it's very important to hold these companies to account,” he says. “We need to make sure that we follow up and ask them six months down the line, ‘how's this project coming along?’”. This has been the Montel Online editorial line since he started at Montel in 2003. “18 years ago, we were critical of the way that some of the big companies - in Germany, especially - were reporting or not reporting outages.”
It's very important to hold these companies to account, we need to make sure that we follow up."
Of course, the world has changed - Richard notes the game-changing effect of social media and especially Twitter, as well as the wealth of data available to actors and reporters via REMIT and other sources - but that editorial line has remained a constant: objectivity and accountability.
The same emperors, the same clothes
That’s especially important as energy markets continue to be driven by large players. “I'd love to be able to sit here and say the opposite, but I haven't really seen it yet,” says Richard with a shrug. If there was a brief flicker with blockchain a few years ago, that moment seems to have sunk below the waves. “I think the big blockchain trading project fell apart because people wanted to take ownership,” he explains, “...the interest was so diverse that it didn't really happen.” Perhaps that might change in the future, he thinks, when renewables really dominate the market and decentralisation and backup aggregation become necessities. Yet today’s market is still dominated by most of same big players who’ve been there since he started reporting. The rise of PPAs is evidence of that: who else could take on the risk and the legal costs involved with these contracts? “You're talking, millions, hundreds of millions in some cases.” Evidence of how some of these big players look very different now. “Somewhat belatedly, many have massively directed investment away from fossil fuels and into renewables.”
Financial markets, physical reporting
Given Richard’s experience, there’s little that can surprise him about energy markets. Except the events of the last two years of course. The impact of COVID-19 on reporting isn’t immediately obvious, but it had a big effect on how his reporters did their jobs. Suddenly generating stories and finding new angles became surprisingly tricky. “You can't go out and take people out for lunch or meet contacts at conferences and seminars.” says Richard. “You don't get the same when you're doing an online meeting.”
We’ve always asked the right questions... We’re still committed to our core principles: objective, independent reporting that provides clarity on what moves markets."
“We have the locals on the ground covering the nitty-gritty,” says Richard, but their job has become much harder, even when it comes to things like press conferences. “We’ve always asked the right questions,” he says, pointing out how webinars shift control of agenda towards those speaking. “It’s just that it's much easier during COVID to ignore or filter out these questions.” That doesn’t mean that Montel will stop asking those questions though. “We’re still committed to our core principles: objective, independent reporting that provides clarity on what moves markets.”