Rolando González-Bunster: I see a great future, and it has to be created rationally.
English extract from: Cabrera, Idalia. “Rolando González-Bunster: Veo un gran futuro, pero tiene que hacerse racionalmente, no en exceso.” EH+, Feb. 2022.
Far from the vision of famous figures such as the well-known Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, successful people tend to stand out for their prudence and for being unknown to the vast majority. Rolando González-Bunster, the president of Interenergy, the main generator of electricity for the Dominican tourism sector, embodies, despite being part of these rankings, the spirit of that anonymity that he jealously guards behind a close smile and an affable treatment. As he affirms with certainty, according to the saying: “Coincidences are God’s way of keeping himself anonymous”, everything has its reason, and destiny far exceeds human understanding. At EHplus+ we talked with Gonzalez-Bunster at the Matafongo wind farm which, through an annual generation of 104 gigawatt hours injected into the national electricity system, diversifies the country’s energy sources towards a more sustainable scheme. Later, at his home in La Romana, the refuge that he firmly treasures, we will discover his most personal side. We invite you to share with us the hours we spent with this believing, familiar and simple businessman, who turns utopias into realities.
How was your foray into the energy sector in the country?
There is a saying, “Coincidences are God’s way of keeping himself anonymous” That is how I can summarize my first steps in the electrical sector.
I originally come from the business world, where I worked on my own and, for ten years, with businessman Charles Bluhdorn at Gulf and Western Industries, from whom I learned a great deal about the business world. Previously, after completing my studies at Georgetown University, I worked with President Balaguer as an interpreter and analyst of international politics and economics.
After Bluhdorn’s death in 1987, I visited President Balaguer, who had regained his presidency a year earlier. As I was almost leaving, I stated that I would be at his service if he ever needed my assistance. At this point he explained to me that he was facing serious problems with the energy sector and the lack of a reliable electricity supply and asked for my help. I asked him for some time to study the subject and to propose the best alternatives.
A curious anecdote is that, days after that conversation, a blond man of Nordic appearance sat in front of me on a train trip from Grand Central Station to Greenwich, Connecticut, at one point he opened a map of the Dominican Republic. With great curiosity I asked him why he was looking at that map and the answer was surprising: “I’m the general manager of Wärtsilä Diesel for Latin America and the Caribbean, and it’s come to my attention that there are serious energy problems in the Dominican Republic, therefore I got this map to learn a little about the country. We are the largest producers of medium revolution motors for electric power in Europe”. From there a very close relationship with Wärtsilä was born.
Thirteen months later we signed the first private contract to sale energy to the Dominican Government. The subsequent months we agreed with different State agencies to bring 60 MW to the country.
This is how the first 40 MW barge, installed on the Ozama River, would arrive in the country in 1989. To get to this step, another coincidence occurred, which was to meet the then CEO of the firm Seaboard Corporation, Harry Bresky, and thanks to his support, we can now speak of InterEnergy Group.
A sector in which you ventured and since then would not separate. Why did you decide to continue investing in the energy sector?
RGB: At the beginning, I was a young man with experience in managing large industries and the energy sector had not initially entered my plans. However, after the request from the President and all the support from the State, I understood that it was a good sector and a good opportunity to enter and learn. In addition, this market entails a very important social component that commits us to work for a greater good. After all, without energy there is no development.
What is InterEnergy group dedicated to, specifically? Are all the companies in the group dedicated to the energy sector?
RGB: InterEnergy Group is made up of companies oriented, mainly, to the provision of energy solutions. The group currently has 2.1 GW of installed capacity and presence in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Jamaica, Chile, and Uruguay.
Our great business focus is on expanding our portfolio of renewables to expand the supply of clean energy in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, with special attention to SIDS (Small Island Developing States), where we have identified approximately 800 MW in development capacity.
Electric mobility is another of our great goals, and a great dream that we pursue as a group, to make sustainable transport the new normal in the short term. From this ambition, we have deployed the most sophisticated network of charging stations for electric vehicles in the region, with more than 500 stations installed to date, between the Dominican Republic, Panama and Jamaica: and with the goal of tripling this figure by the end of 2022, as part of our expansion plan in the region.
How has been the treatment by the Dominican authorities, commercially speaking, during your years as an entrepreneur in the country? Do you have any complaints?
RGB: Very good, I cannot complain, I’ve been treated with respect, otherwise we wouldn’t have the success that we have. In the electricity sector we’re among the highest taxpayers. In the last five years CEPM has contributed RD$4,905 million in taxes.
During the past government, CEPM signed an agreement with the Ministry of the Presidency and the National System, for Attention to Emergencies and Security to facilitate connectivity and Internet access to schools and hospitals in the eastern part of the country, as well as the transmission of images from the 9-1-1 video surveillance system. Did that agreement come to fruition? And if so, what have been the fruits?
RGB: Yes, the agreement was finalized, and it’s working very well.
Thanks to alliances like these, we feel that we’re contributing to the community, so they can have better basic services and live in an area with better conditions.
Since 2002, we have made more than RD$230 million in energy donations to hospitals, schools, security forces and vulnerable sectors of our concession area in the east of the country, as part of our commitment to community development.
Public lighting is also a donation that we make to contribute to the development of the area, and to the improvement of the quality of life of the communities where we operate.
Years ago, you projected that Punta Catalina was a decision of the moment and that in the years to come we would see the results. What do you think about it in 2022?
RGB: Yes, at that time I said what I really believed. It was a decision of the moment, made by the president of that time. He understood it feasible and embarked on the project, despite my recommendation to the contrary. Regarding the result, time has given the answer. It was not feasible for many reasons.
First, in environmental terms. Second, it is not state-of-the-art technology. And third, because of the negotiations necessary to maintain coal over time.
As an expert in the field, what future do you see for renewable energy in the Dominican Republic?
RGB: There’s a lot of future. In fact, there are good intentions in believing in it. The world is demanding more clean energy every day and is moving towards zero emissions with major commitments from the private sector, as we have seen at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), where I had the honor to participate.
It was precisely there that we signed an agreement with Bank of America to work together to develop clean energy solutions in the Caribbean and Latin America.
For this reason, I see a great future, but it must be done rationally, since, otherwise, energy production can become more expensive and destabilize, as has happened in Europe. It’s a process that must be done gradually and plan well where the reserve energy comes from.
And among those projects that you have in your portfolio, which ones are focused on the Dominican Republic?
We plan to present a very ambitious future development plan, “CEPM Zero”, which is going to be very revolutionary, as it’s going to change the way of generating energy. We’re firmly convinced that this country, with time, can aspire to change the energy matrix.
We are committed to this, we have the project to decarbonize our 300MW CEPM plants in this decade, through solar, wind and green hydrogen energy with an estimated investment of US$1 billion. With this step, which is part of our CEPM Zero initiative, we will become one of the first electricity companies in the world with zero emissions and 100% renewable energy. We want to be at the forefront of this pioneering drive, helping to be the first tourist destination to become a global sustainable model.
You’ve always been characterized for being very visionary.
RGB: I would define myself as restless.
Based on the current scenario, do you think the country will achieve the goal of 25% of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025, as established by Law 57-07?
RGB: Yes, it may be so. Renewable energies and fuels represent a great potential to contribute to a great extent the promotion of regional, rural, and agro-industrial economic development in the country, but we must continue working to achieve it.
Our commitment to renewable energies is more than twenty years old. Unfortunately, as with all new ideas, we hit bumps along the way. Remember that Columbus was called crazy for saying that the world was round. The world and life are constantly changing.
Now, wind turbines on the move mean clean energy. That is the world of the future.
Tell us about your big commitment to electric mobility.
RGB: In 2013, the Incentive Law for the Import of Non-Conventional Energy Vehicles was enacted in our country. In the local market, electric vehicles are gaining a great deal of space. We’re talking about the fact that in 2018 there were only 50 registered electric vehicles and today the Dominican Republic has more than 3,000.
From this reality, we created the Evergo company, with the aim of transforming the transportation system to energy sources that do not pollute. The first step was to understand that, to facilitate the transition to sustainable mobility based on electrification, we had to provide a broad and reliable infrastructure of charging stations, to offer the user and potential use of electric vehicles, the necessary confidence so that everyone can reach their destination without fear of running out of charge.
We currently have more than 500 charging stations between the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Panama. Here, in this country, we’ve already connected the 32 provinces and we have a plan to expand to new markets such as Mexico, Uruguay, Paraguay, Spain, Aruba, the United States and Puerto Rico, with the aim of adding more than 3,500 charging stations in the region.
As a next step, we’re going to start opening charging stations throughout the country, starting with Bávaro. These are service stations exclusively for electric vehicles.
The advantages of electric mobility are many and I can speak from experience. Not only in environmental terms, but also economically. In fuel and maintenance savings can be up to 80%, compared to a combustion one.
In short, we’re going to make Evergo a global brand. That is the future. In the same way that renewable energy was the future 25 years ago, in just 10 years all cars will be electric. We’re going towards total electrification.
What has been the market response?
RGB: Very positive. We have developed a pilot project for the transfer of electric vehicles between tourist transport companies, so that they can learn first-hand about the benefits of electric mobility. For this purpose, we’ve brought to the country the first electric bus, the first mini-buses and electric taxis.
With Uber, specifically, we have recently announced an alliance through which we facilitate access to electric mobility for its driving partners, with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of their journeys, making a total of 20 electric vehicles available to them from our corporate fleet. In a first stage, we offer the option of a trial period of 30 days free of charge. For those interested, facilities will be offered to acquire them at zero initial cost.
And this is only the first step, with the idea of adding more and more electric vehicles to our streets and extending this alliance throughout Latin America.
And the recent investment in the Matafongo wind farm, has it met your expectations?
RGB: Of course, it has an installed capacity of 34MW expandable to 50MW and generates approximately 104 GWh each year. It runs very well.
Does the social insecurity that has been evident in the country, represent any obstacle to the development of your companies?
RGB: Right now, it hasn’t affected us directly, but yes, I would worry if it got out of control and affect tourism. Now more than ever, we need unity, solidarity, and coherence. We must help each other; look for synergies and collaborations that allow us to get out of this situation, to transmit and recover trust in tourists.
How did Covid-19 affect your companies? Did it teach you anything?
RGB: Like all entrepreneurs of any company, it affected us. In our case, foresight was the strongest. We prepared well when we saw that this situation would take time and we stocked up with enough fuel.
It affected us with the electricity demand where we operate in Bávaro, Punta Cana, La Romana, Bayahibe. The reduction was 65%. Fortunately, we’re already recovering.
About lessons, COVID 19 left me many, especially on my personal life. I stayed home from March to December. I learned that in business, technology brings you closer. I learned to value life in another way. I learned to do the things that I do, but in a different way.
Fuels worldwide are representing a significant rise; how do you prepare for that effect?
RGB: We’re always paying attention to that factor and thank God when an event changes we’re already prepared. It’s not that it takes us by surprise, at least in the parameters that we have as an eventuality. The electricity business requires information on fuel, being up to date, taking care of reports, constantly analyzing where the markets are heading when the price turns negative.
It’s also necessary to know the current trends in the sector, the transition, decarbonization, technological innovation and the need for greater connectivity with customers. Our contracts are closely linked to fuel. At a certain level we have natural coverage, if it goes up or down it is transferred to the client, but we must try not to make the market go crazy.
We have long term contracts, especially for gas, with a very strict formula and we can determine prices and coverage. The electricity business requires a lot of information about fuel, being up to date and taking care of reports, being constantly informed of where the markets are going.
What aspects do you think should be considered in the reform of the Law on Energy, so that public policies applied help the sustainable growth of generation of clean energy, and allow for improvements in the distribution service?
RGB. I think the country has very efficient generation plants. It has a diversified generation park and there is a great commitment to natural gas, which is the least polluting transition fuel that exists.
There’s an existing terminal, and the construction of a natural gas storage tank is being carried out in Punta Caucedo in which we participate as part of the entity Energía Natural Dominicana (ENADOM), which constitutes one of the most important alliances in the energy market of the country, to bring reliable and profitable electricity to the Dominican market.
In addition, last year through the Electricity Company of San Pedro de Macorís (Energas) we were able to see the goal of converting the three generation units of this plant to natural gas, contributing more than 300 MW to the Interconnected Electric System.
Do you have any project to develop in Haiti?
RGB. I had every intention at some point, but the socio-political aspects of the country have never provided the necessary security. It’s a pity because it could help that country a lot.
In my opinion, what can be done in that country, which shares borders with the Dominican Republic, is to reinforce the border in the commercial aspect, create industries, so that they can supply themselves, work to develop the economy and create jobs.
ABOUT PERSONAL ASPECT
Of the countries where you have established your companies, have you given some advice to a president that has taken it to consideration.
RGB: Yes. Here in the Dominican Republic.
RGB: President Balaguer, Leonel Fernández and Danilo Medina; although this last one ignored me (referring to Punta Catalina).
Have you ever thought about entering politics?
RGB: Only when I was a boy, I wanted to be president of Argentina. As an adult, I have never thought about that. I’ve contributed to different countries as an entrepreneur; I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many presidents and that for me is very satisfying because I’ve been able to contribute with solutions.
What is your secret to optimize time?
RGB: Respect time itself. After the pandemic I told you that I had learned many things. One of them is not to move if it is not strictly necessary. I have a lot of Zoom meetings. That way I yield more because I’m also in a better mood. Even if the road journey is very long, I use the air route; saves me time.
Why did you emigrate from Argentina to the United States?
RGB: My parents decided it and I left as a child.
How does that transition from adolescent, adult, to entrepreneur take place? Did you ever think of being what you represent today?
RGB. I was a very restless child, according to my mother. Then I became a normal teenager, focused, and determined to study. I went to college taking it very seriously, and I started working very young. Adulthood led me to be a responsible businessman with a high commitment, which represents what I have chosen to be.
Do you Believe in God? What religion do you profess?
RGB. Yes, I´m Catholic, I believe that coincidences are the way that God uses to tell us that he exists.
God gives us family, but we choose our friends, do you have friends that you do you consider as family? Who could you say is your best friend?
RGB: I have several great friends. But Bill (Clinton) is one of my best friends. We know each other from the University. He´s the closest to me because we´ve known each other for a long time and the amount of things we have done together.
When you´re with your friends, what do you enjoy doing the most?
RGB. Play golf, talk about politics, business news, a game of chess…
Almost all retired men play golf…
RGB. (Laughter) No, there´re many young people that like to play golf.
When do you feel fulfilled?
RGB: When I can get my whole family together. I love being with all of them, my wife, children, sons-in-law, grandchildren… I really enjoy having them all, especially here at home, at Christmas, Easter… That’s part of what makes me feel very fulfilled.
Almost all of us have someone with whom we consult some things before doing them, do you have that person?
RGB. Yes of course. On the entrepreneurial and business side, I talk to my sons and sons-in-law. They´re very special, smart. I also have friends in the company whom I consult. I also consult, Roberto Herrera, Flavio Pinheiro and Jorge Jasson, for example.
What can’t you stop doing daily?
RGB: Look, I wake up and what I always, always do is look at the newspapers, from the US, Argentina, and from the countries where I have business.
You look healthy and take care of yourself, do you have any eating or sports routine?
RGB: I eat healthy and balanced, and I do sports.
You have been wearing a beard for many years, is it for any special reason?
RGB (Laughter) I tell you that I grew my beard because I wanted to look more adult when I started working at Gulf and Western Industries when I was barely twenty-six years old, and I never took it off again.
What position did you reach there?
RGB: Vice President of the International area.
Entrepreneurs like you are some kind of a celebrity, but in the financial area, how do you handle success?
RGB: I don’t wear it. Success is fleeting. One day you can have it, another day you can’t; so, I don’t think about that. I’m cautious and don’t take unnecessary risks, in the sense of indebting our companies on a large scale. The businesses that I’ve been lucky enough to create or participate in have been profitable, and to a certain extent that is success. Global conditions can change scenarios, so I consider all possible risks, in all deals. The conditions are not determined by one; I do not boast of success, and I am well aware that I can wake up one day and fall, because even the greatest and most intelligent fall.
There are men of action and men of emotion… which one are you?
Do you think a lot about things before doing them?
RGB: I always think about everything, I analyze, I don’t make hasty decisions without thinking, especially when it comes to business.
Is it difficult for you to apologize?
RGB. Not at all.
Which of your grandchildren do you feel is more you?
RGB. Of my grandchildren? Let me think… I think Nicolás. Yes, he’s more me.
What do you think people admire most about you?
RGB. From me? … The truth is that I haven’t thought about it. But now that you ask me, I think what I achieved, what I have contributed and created, which has left good thigs for others. In addition, they say that I am a good human being.
You speak several languages, when you think about business or feelings, which language is
active in your brain?
RGB: Immediately the language relates to the answer that I must express
Do you use Argentine expressions in your vocabulary, which ones?
RGB. (laughs) Yes, of course. You, “Che…” I have my Argentine accent.
Do you feel more American than Argentine?
RGB: A bit of both.
How do you define the Dominican people?
RGB: Cheerful, happy, always, always with a smile in good spirits, helpful, just a happy human being.
Are you proud that the pope is Argentine? Where you able to congratulate him when he became a Pope?
RGB. Yes, of course very proud. I was not able congratulate him, but I do know him, and I have spoken with him before becoming pope.
What value does family have in your life?
RGB. Everything is a source of inspiration, support, joy.
Are you preparing any of your children to follow your legacy? Do some work with you?
RGB: Yes, one is already involved and another one is being prepared. Soon it will.
What concept do you have of women?
RGB: The largest. I respect women a lot. Women are essential in life.
What advice would you give to those friends you see who only work, work, work and are always busy for family, friends, etc., and miss out on the beautiful things that life offers us?
RGB: That they take some time to also do the things that they like. Although I confess that sometimes I have felt like one of those people you mention. It’s not easy, when you have strong professional commitments and so many people and things depend on you.
Where would you like to live for your retirement?
RGB: I’m very happy in the Dominican Republic. I love what you see, this landscape, the peace, the people.
Your favorite drink?
RGB: Alcoholic or natural?
RGB: Alcoholic, clamato with a little vodka; and the natural one, the zapote juice.
The sapodilla juice, with milk or water?
RGB: With milk.
What music do you like to listen to?
RGB: I like the Beatles, Tony Bennett, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Antonio Carlos…
RGB: I like Juan Luis Guerra, soft Brazilian music, Bossa nova…
Do you dance?
RGB: (laughs) I’m not good at dancing, I have no talent for dancing.
In other words, have you never danced any rhythm? Doesn’t any rhythm catch your attention? Pop, Rock, bolero, merengue, salsa, bachata?
RGB: When we were very young, my wife took me to a disco and while she danced, I read the newspaper (laughs).
Your favorite color to wear.
RGB: Pink and yellow.
RGB: I love yellow; for me it is a peaceful color.
Ah, like the colors of energy
RGB. Something like that.
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
RGB. I don’t consider myself either. One day I can be an extrovert, another day an introvert… but I think that, in general, I am more extroverted.
There definitely must be several factors that influence you, tell me three.
RGB: The people who’ve made the most significant contributions to my life are my father, President Balaguer, and businessman Charles Bluhdorn (CEO of Gulf + Western). Also, Rudyard Kipling. Have you heard about him?
RGB: Yes. My mother always recited to me part of his poem “If”, which has marked me a lot. Since my mother taught it to me, it has been present in my life.
I will recite it to you …
“If you can walk with the crowd and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings nor lose the common touch; if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run; Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”