Angela Melkonian (Paris, 2021)

Angela Melkonian Brings Renewable Energy to Armenia, Iraq and Beyond

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PARIS – As climate change becomes the hot topic of the 21st century and the world starts shifting towards clean energy sources replacing fossil fuels, renewable energy from the sun, wind and water appears to offer an optimal solution. Angela Melkonian works to realize major projects in this field and has played an important role in bringing solar energy to Armenia, Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. She also is involved in Armenian cultural projects, dragon boat racing and fashion modeling.

Born in Beirut, Melkonian is a third-generation Armenian Lebanese who currently works for Scatec, a Norwegian renewable energy firm, in its Paris offices. In early October, headlines in the international media reported a historic framework agreement between a consortium led by Scatec and the Iraqi government to build a 525 megawatt solar project in the governates of Karbalaa and Babylon. Iraqi Oil Minister Ihsan Abdul Jabbar said the value of the agreement was approximately $500 million. Melkonian played a key role in the negotiations for this first large-scale solar energy project in Iraq.

Iraq

She said that while the recent framework agreement is a high-level accord, the power purchase agreement (PPA) that now is being discussed is even more important as it will cover all the technical, financial and legal aspects of this transaction.

Angela Melkonian, fourth from left, at a solar site visit to Babylon, Iraq, August 2021

Melkonian provided some background information to this deal. Iraq is seen generally as an oil producing country, but it also has a huge electricity deficit because it exports its oil as a source of income and consequently is heavily dependent on natural gas arriving from Iran. Recently, the US has been pressuring it to stop this commerce with Iran, which gave it more incentive to become self-sufficient and develop other energy sectors. Consequently, in 2020, it launched a tender including seven projects in five different projects for a total of 755 megawatts. Scatec focuses on emerging markets, and it decided to give a very competitive bid, together with its two consortium partners who have local knowhow due to preexisting projects in Iraq.

The consortium won the two big projects of 225 and 300 megawatts in the two aforementioned regions to the south of Baghdad. Before this, there were only small rooftop projects and one unrealized solar program attempt by the government at a largescale project in 2017. As a gage of scale for readers, a medium-sized industrial warehouse rooftop would produce almost 1 megawatt of solar power and cover its energy needs.

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One complication, Melkonian explained, is that up until now, Iraq financed all such projects through commercial banks and short-term loans or its own balance sheet and did not have project finance precedents. Therefore, Scatec must do some educational groundwork as the first to open the Iraqi market to development banks, which operate in a different manner, to finance this and any future similar projects.

One of the encouraging signals in the country is that a large conference took place in Baghdad with world leaders in September in which it was decided that Iraq should play a role in regional stability, despite the complicated political situation there. This, Melkonian said, boosted confidence that these leaders see a stable future for Iraq.

Her Armenian background turned out to be quite positively received in Iraq. The current Iraqi minister of electricity is Kurdish. During a meeting with 15 people from the Iraqi side and 5 from the Scatec consortium, the minister suddenly stopped the conversation and, looking at Melkonian, said, you are not French and you are not Lebanese. Where are you from. Melkonian said that after she replied that her background was Armenian, he completely changed his tone and body language, exclaiming, “Oh my God, I love the Armenians!” In the middle of the discussion, he broached the genocide topic and said that the Armenians have been unfairly treated. He ordered coffee to be served to everyone and then invited Melkonian and her team to his personal office after the meeting.

Melkonian added that in Lebanon too, Armenians are held in high esteem as hard workers, smart and good in business and craftsmanship.

Armenia

Prior to working for Scatec, Melkonian worked from Dubai for the Spanish company Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian company Abdul Latif Jameel Energy and Environmental Services) from 2015 to 2019 initially as a development manager and then as the development and technical manager for the Middle East and North Africa. She helped negotiate, as project manager for Fotowatio the first largescale solar program for Armenia, in the Mets Masrik municipality of Gegharkunik province, near Lake Sevan. She said, “This was first a personal achievement, as it was the first solar program in Armenia, and I was the project manager for it.” Additionally, she said that it was a great chance for her to see Armenia, as she went there many times for this project.

The entrance to Mets Masrik, Armenia, during a solar site visit in January 2018

Andrea Wiktorin, European Union (EU) ambassador of the EU delegation to Armenia, evaluated this project very highly, declaring: “The Masrik Solar Energy Project will play a fundamental role in Armenia achieving its energy and climate objectives in line with the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. It also has the potential to provide a range of new jobs, create new industrial opportunities in the region and contribute to economic growth, just as the EU promotes with the new European Green deal.”

The Armenian government instituted a competitive application process in which twenty international developers competed for this project. The negotiation process was prolonged and took over a year, Melkonian said, because, as in Iraq, when there is a first largescale solar project in any country, the negotiation process of the project agreements with the government takes time because it necessitates bringing the different local stakeholders up to speed with the renewable energy market legal frameworks.

Angela Melkonian during a solar site visit at Mets Masrik, January 2018

The most important takeaway is enabling the project finance scheme through development banks which offer very competitive loan interests to finance this kind of projects. Hence the negotiated agreements with the governments must be what is called “bankable,” continued Melkonian, which means that they should have minimum risk on the sponsors and on the lenders.

Solar plants financed under a build, own, operate (BOO) regime, are not sold for a lump sum, but rather under a PPA scheme for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) sold, similarly to purchase of electricity from the national gird. Under such a scheme, the banks want to be sure that the payment risks are mitigated under the agreements with the government.

Angela Melkonian viewing Lake Sevan, near Mets Masrik, in January 2018

While Melkonian is no longer with Fotowatio, she said she follows what is happening with interest. The war in Armenia in 2020 delayed the construction process, which initially was estimated as taking one year.

In early 2021, a PPA was signed with Electric Networks of Armenia, which will distribute the electricity. The 55-megawatt solar plant will produce enough energy to supply more than 20,000 homes, and, according to Fotowatio, avoid the emission of over 40,000 tons of CO2 per year. The project is supported with $38.4 million in financing from the International Finance Corporation, which is a member of the World Bank Group, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Union, while Ameriabank will provide AMD loan facility to finance VAT needs.

Khachkars at the edge of Lake Sevan, near Mets Masrik, January 2018

The Road to Expertise

Melkonian grew up in Bourj Hammoud and Anjar and went to Armenian school until 9th grade. She continued her education at an Armenian Catholic high school, Collège Hripsimiantz and graduated with a French baccalaureate degree in biology from a French Lebanese school, Collège des Soeurs des Saints Coeurs Sioufi in Ashrafiyeh. She ended up studying mechanical engineering, which she thought would be a practical field for work, at the American University of Beirut.

Right after graduation, at the age of 22, she found a compelling job in engineering and sales for the international firm HILTI in Qatar and stayed there three years. She said, though her parents were very openminded, she sought a new environment, declaring: “I wanted to get away. I wanted to discover my identity away from any predispositions: I wanted to create myself.”

At a construction site in Qatar in October, 2012

Hilti Qatar is a very large multinational company headquartered in Liechtenstein selling construction tools, materials and software, and indeed, Qatar was a completely different environment for her. She began as an account manager but after a year, she was moved to field engineering. Every day she had to make five or six construction site visits, and sometimes drive to the middle of the desert, where she would demonstrate power tools to site engineers and construction workers.

Engineering traditionally is a male-dominated field. There were three female engineers in the company and the rest, around 30 people, were men, Melkonian said. She recalled: “People used to ask me, was it safe? It was Qatar. If someone says something or does something wrong, they would cut off his hand or tongue. It was extremely safe. I would enter construction sites alone, and there was not even a whistle — nothing. There was a lot of respect.”

Conducting an on-site demonstration in Qatar, 2014

Melkonian wanted to do more and particularly to enter the renewable energy field, which was always her passion, so she began looking for new employment opportunities in this sector. She said, “My passion was always to work in something that has a humanitarian effect, something to make the world a better place. In engineering, if you think about it, what better thing is there other than fighting climate change and working in renewable energies.” Qatar had a lot of oil and gas and therefore did not feel the need to advance in this area. Consequently, she had to apply to firms elsewhere.

Melkonian did not have any experience or formal expertise in this new field, so she received many rejections at first to her applications. She pointed out that “I don’t think you can learn project management theoretically. You learn it all on the job. It really requires hands-on experience.”

Finally, advice from a friend led her to go to the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi and do some interviews. That led to a position with Building Energy, an Italian independent power producer (IPP) headquartered in Milan, which was opening an office in Dubai. Melkonian’s fluency in French, English and Arabic (and Armenian), as well as her sales experience, motivated nature and willingness to start at a modest salary in order to enter this new field won her the post as business development manager (2014-15). During this year and a half, the company won two 50 megawatt projects in Egypt, in Benban in Aswan governate, in the western desert, as part of the first utility scale photovoltaic project. This 100 megawatts was part of a huge 2,000 megawatt project. Soon, the Benban Solar Park became one of the world’s largest solar complexes, visible even from space.

However, Building Energy decided to close its Dubai branch offering her a position in its Capetown office, but she did not want to move to South Africa as she had just started to get comfortable in Dubai. Instead, she found a position with Fotowatio, a competitor of Building Energy, in its Dubai office, and again worked as a business development manager, at first.

Fotowatio also had recently won a 50 megawatt project in the Benban lot and it directly assigned Melkonian to be the project manager for this. Afterwards, five companies involved in developing the entire 2,000 megawatt solar plant decided to form a body called the Benban Solar Association to discuss issues common to all the developers. Her company placed Melkonian on this board. It decided on and launched work through contractors that was necessary for the entire plant, such as waste management or traffic management.

Fotowatio then needed someone on its technical team, and due to Melkonian’s background as an engineer, they appointed her as a technical and development manager.

Melkonian worked on three projects in Jordan, but, in addition to the Mets Masrik project in Armenia, she said the other major achievement of her time at Fotowatio was the bid preparation and award for a major 800 megawatt project for the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA). In this project, prior to exiting the opportunity, Fotowatio was initially partnering with Masdar, the Abu Dhabi government funded and owned independent power producer.

The Nature of the Job

At Fotowatio, Melkonian explained that when the company would win a project, she would go to the sites, first to meet the government officials and different stakeholders, and then to see the nature of the land to assess the technical feasibility of the project. She said, “My job was not purely technical. There is a lot of PR, a lot of relationship building. It is very important that we go to the sites and talk to local people, and manage their expectations vis a vis the project and its socio-economic impact on the nearby communities.

Melkonian had lived three years in Qatar and five in Dubai. She said, “I spent my twenties in the Gulf. It was time for me to see a different environment and do something else. I always thought of coming to Europe.” She told recruiters who were contacting her that she only would be interested in positions there, and that is what happened. Though taxes are high and salaries lower than in Dubai, she was ready to make that sacrifice in exchange for the change in lifestyle, she said.

At Scatec, her focus is primarily the Middle East, rather than North Africa. Along with public relations, the technical side of her work entails the preparation of the entire technical proposal for projects. She said, “I coordinate it internally with the engineering team and with the procurement team, to optimize the cost-benefits of the technology that we are selecting to have a competitive edge in the tenders where we are participating.” Scatec initially focused on solar energy projects, but by now additionally it works on wind, hydroelectric power, battery storage and green hydrogen, Melkonian added.

In Iraq, as in her prior projects, Melkonian said she didn’t see any issues with being a woman working in her field, where 98 percent are men. She said, “For me, to be honest, I didn’t have the issue of my gender, but I felt hierarchy and age are extremely important there.”

Lebanon

The Mirror-Spectator asked Melkonian for her opinion as an energy specialist and as a Lebanese-Armenian by origin, on the causes of the current energy crisis in Lebanon. She immediately pointed to corruption as the primarily culprit. The electricity sector in Lebanon constitutes one-third of the government deficit every year. Beside under the table deals, there is also a lot of theft, with many electricity bills remaining unpaid. Moreover, the transmission grid in Lebanon is extremely bad so on top of an already existing power generation deficit, there are technical losses over this generated power.

Instead of maintaining existing power plants or building new ones, she said that during recent years, the government subcontracted for electricity. Ships from Turkey were brought called Karadeniz to power Lebanon with 300 megawatts capacity. This only supplied a part of the power. This was not a sustainable plan nor did it help Lebanon become self-sufficient by any means.

An unstable political scene and hyperinflation also put various upcoming tenders for power production in Lebanon on hold. Melkonian pointed out that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is asking Lebanon to reform its electricity sector as one of the requirements for being bailed out, and renewable energy is one of the pillars of these requested reforms.

One of the problems in the electricity regulatory sector, Melkonian said, is that Lebanon does not have an independent regulatory authority, separate from the Ministry of Electricity, to oversee competitive tenders and fix power rates in the country. Many countries have what is called an energy regulatory authority, which ensures a fair competitive tendering program among qualified bidders and excludes conflicts of interest when the Ministry of Electricity issues contracts. In Armenia, for example, it is called the Public Services Regulatory Commission. However, every year, the Lebanese government postpones the creation of such a body.

Lebanon would be a great market for renewable energy investments, Melkonian concluded, but first the IMF would need to help the country stand back on its feet.

Fashion, Sports and Singing

Melkonian is not your typical engineer. She always pursued other interests in life, and fashion has been one of them. As a teenager in Lebanon, she won three beauty pageants, As a teenager in Lebanon, she won three beauty pageants, Miss Teenager presented by MTV Lebanon, in 2002; Miss Dhour Shweir Teenager, the following year, when she was 14; and first runner-up in Miss Model of Lebanon when she was 15. Her mother encouraged her, as it was one of her own regrets that she did not enter such pageants.

During her years in Qatar, Melkonian lived a double life. During the day she did her field work, wearing construction boots and facing heat of 50 degrees Celsius, but after 4 p.m. she walked fashion catwalk runways at five-star hotels. She approached a modeling agency which booked her in fashion shows. The Qatari market for fashion and luxury goods is one of the fastest growing in the world, she said, because many Qatari women have a lot of money but don’t work, and they channel their interests toward fashion.

In Dubai, Melkonian did not spend time on modeling because she worked late hours and focused on her primary career interest which is the renewable energy sector. On the other hand, Melkonian was able, to participate in dragon boat racing contests, and her team went to Hungary to compete in the world championship in 2018. Though her team did not win, it was, she said, very important to even make it that far.

Singing is another activity that Melkonian has always loved. She said she came from a musical family, and that her father, who passed away last November, had an enchanting voice (“better than Adiss Harmandian”). Her father’s brother played the accordion and piano, and her grandfather, a self-taught musician, played many instruments, including the guitar, violin, mandolin, flute, harmonica and piano. So when there were big family gatherings, there was music and her father used to sing.

In Beirut, and then in Dubai, Melkonian took a lot of singing lessons. When she moved to Paris, she joined a jazz band, but covid happened and everything closed down. Then the French-Armenian community Armenopole invited different artists to submit songs or music for an April 24 event this year. As she had not yet recorded any Armenian songs, the group asked her to act as the master of ceremonies for the event streamed online, presenting the show and the artists. In June 2021, the same group organized a music festival and again asked Armenians around the world for their submissions. This time, Melkonian decided to record something as a tribute to her father.

She took the traditional song Ov Siroun Siroun (also known as Ov Tu Keghetsig), and did a bossa nova cover of it, which has not been done before. It was shown as part of the Armenian music festival organized by Armenopole.

A fashion photoshoot in Paris

Melkonian said that hopefully she will continue in this vein with Armenians, and also do non-Armenian music. She said, “I really enjoy being involved in multidisciplinary activities especially when they have an artistic dimension. It gets me out of the engineer stereotype and gives me an eccentric edge.”

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