At the onset of the 21st century, ACCIONA ventured into the renewable energy sector, making a revolutionary and visionary investment in both the future of energy and the well-being of our planet. Even before ACCIONA Energía took shape as a distinct entity, Alfredo López played a significant role in those formative years. In many ways, his journey mirrors the evolution of renewable energy in Spain. Today, we are privileged to share his captivating story, one that brims with infectious enthusiasm and serves as a testament to the transformative power of renewable energy.
Dreamers who could do the maths
Alfredo López Mendiburu, or Fredi as he prefers to be called, served as one of the logistics and supply managers at EHN—a renewable energy company—during a time when the sector was in its infancy, not only in Spain but also across much of Europe. During this groundbreaking era, Fredi played a pivotal role, spearheading the establishment of the first biomass plant south of Denmark, which is to say most of Europe, in 2001.
“In 2001 I joined EHN, what is now ACCIONA Energía, because ACCIONA would buy EHN, which was already an incredible venture driven by dreamers who could do the math, as I used to say. During our festive Christmas gatherings, I vividly recall our boss at the time urging us to change the world. As I glanced at my colleagues, I affirmed, ‘We really believe that.’ It is impossible not to recall Jesús Argumedo, another ACCIONA employee, who described himself as an “idealist with his feet on the ground” in a recent interview.
“Our boss at the time urged us to change the world and, as I glanced at my colleagues, I affirmed, ‘We really believe that.’”
ACCIONA Energía has now established itself as a prominent leader in renewable energies. However, two decades ago, when it initially invested in EHN, the business landscape surrounding renewable energy was largely uncharted territory. During those formative years of the 21st century, when concepts like sustainability barely garnered a passing mention in annual corporate reports, a remarkable synergy unfolded between these two companies. Their alignment went beyond strategic and production approaches; it was deeply rooted in shared values.
An unexpected tragedy and a leap into renewable energy
As in the case of Elena Navarro, another engineer at ACCIONA, Fredi had a clear aspiration from a young age—to become a civil engineer, or as he used to say as a kid, a “road repairman.” Inspired by a relative, his uncle, he embarked on a path leading him from his hometown of Pamplona to the city of Santander. His journey appeared to align with the fulfillment of his dreams seamlessly. However, life, messy and bewildering as it sometimes can be, had different plans for him. However, during his third year, an unforeseen setback emerged, compelling him to return to the capital of Navarre.
Plautus, the Roman playwright, captured a timeless truth over two thousand years ago with the phrase, “Nomen est omen,” which translates to “the name is destiny.” The second surname of our interviewee is Mendiburu, which in Basque language means “mountain head” or “mountain top.” Both Fredi and his father always shared a deep-rooted passion for mountains and the wonders of nature. In fact, Fredi’s adventurous spirit led him to adventurous activities such as ice climbing, bivouacking at dizzying heights of three thousand meters, and conquering the peaks of the Moroccan Atlas, all while he was still in his twenties.
The Pyrenees have always held a special place in his family’s heart. Fredi humbly recounts how a picturesque corner in the Pyrenean mountains became the backdrop for his most haunting nightmare, “one of the two great blows I have endured in my life.”
“[Ordesa] is a privileged place that we knew perfectly. My father, without a doubt, was the epitome of safety and caution when venturing into the mountains. Then, suddenly, one day he had gone up with some friends, and it turned out that he didn’t come down, and we kept waiting. Something stirred within my mother, perhaps a subtle intuition or unexplainable vibrations that science has yet to comprehend—telepathy or mysterious forces of connection. The fact is that my father lost his life in Ordesa, in the place he loved the most.” It was 1993, and Fredi’s world had changed forever.
Inevitably, that unexpected blow made him change course. He found himself compelled to return to Pamplona, assuming the responsibility of supporting his mother. With this shift in city, a corresponding shift in his career ensued: he embraced the path of an agricultural engineer. Upon completing his degree, he further honed his expertise through a specialized Land Management and Environment course. It was during this time that the foundational concepts, which would shape his professional journey, began to take root and accompany him throughout his entire career.
“If effectively managing water is the way to go, it turns out that the same principle applies to energy—it needs to be sustainable too. That’s when I discovered the whole world of energy.”
“[Spatial planning] is optimizing the utilization of land for the benefit of humanity, while ensuring its sustainability […]. Throughout my studies in Land Management and my career as an agricultural engineer, water management held significant importance to me. Coincidentally, at that very moment, I received a compelling job offer from EHN, Energía Hidroeléctrica de Navarra—a company that had wholeheartedly embraced renewable energies. The opportunity presented itself in the field of biomass,” Fredi explains, reflecting on the start of his journey.
Fredi had his eureka moment: “That’s when I truly grasped the profound significance of water in our lives, for humanity, and the environment we inhabit and utilize. It became evident to me that energy, in many ways, shared a close bond with water, like a kindred twin sister. If effectively managing water is the way to go, it turns out that the same principle applies to energy—it needs to be sustainable too. That’s when I discovered the whole world of energy.” And so he had barely finished that specialization course when he was already taking his first steps in the renewable energy sector.
A cup of coffee with a farmer to change the world
During the nascent phase of the sector, Fredi actively engaged with pioneering concepts like the circular economy, which had yet to gain widespread recognition. In the early 2000s, the issue of stubble burning fires posed a significant challenge. Consequently, the practice was prohibited, necessitating the baling or burial of crop straw in the field. Disposing of such agricultural waste became an arduous task until the advent of biomass and the Sangüesa plant, which boasted an annual production of 200 GWh of clean energy.
“I vividly remember those days when we would arrive at work, tasked with supplying the plant, and just two of us would grapple with the challenge of meeting the insatiable appetite of this straw-devouring behemoth,” he recalls. This was no exaggeration; in sheer numbers, it meant accommodating fifty truckloads of straw daily. “We carried out three demanding campaigns to effectively manage the collection of the necessary straw.” How to achieve this? Well, they had to go all over the farms. “We even entered people’s homes for a cup of coffee, engaging in negotiations to secure contracts [with the farmers],” he explains. This innovative approach offered the primary sector a fresh source of income and transformed the often-bothersome straw residue into a valuable resource.
Fredi effortlessly navigated between farmer’s dining rooms and high-powered offices thanks to his empathetic and enthusiastic nature. During this period, his relentless pursuit of renewable energy prompted him to write a letter to Josep Piqué, the Minister of Industry in Spain at the time, advocating for state investment in this emerging sector. To Fredi’s delight, the minister responded personally with a handwritten letter expressing gratitude for his dedication. The Sangüesa plant, alongside the pioneering wind farms, served as tangible evidence that an alternative energy source was not only feasible but also manageable, setting it apart from other forms of renewable energy.
The second major blow (and another reinvention)
In 2003, while driving along a national highway near the Irati River, a truck driver noticed the tracks of a vehicle heading toward the ravine. At the bottom, thirty feet below, he saw a half-submerged car that looked familiar to him: it was Fredi’s, whom he knew from having worked with him at the Sangüesa plant. Rescue work began immediately, and the firefighters could pull him out of the river with a raft to put him in a helicopter and take him to the Hospital de Navarra. There he was between life and death —“it’s a miracle that I’m alive”—for over a week. Then a few weeks of confusion passed until the reality dawned: the accident had left him paraplegic.
“I remember arriving at the paraplegic hospital in Toledo and someone saying that we were all knackered, and I raised my hand and said, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I feel privileged to be here.’”
When two EHN managers arrived at the hospital where he was convalescing, Fredi looked them in the eye, and almost the first thing he said as they walked through the door was: “We need more people.” He referred to the need for additional personnel to continue the biomass project. It was clear that Fredi was not going to give up.
“I have always felt privileged, even after losing my father… I remember arriving at the paraplegic hospital in Toledo and someone saying that we were all knackered, and I raised my hand and said: ‘I know it may sound strange, but I feel privileged to be here.’” His spirit remained unbroken, determined to not only survive but also to cherish life and its accomplishments.
In that regard, Fredi recalls the inspiring example of his friend, Antxón Arza, who was one of the intrepid adventurers featured on the legendary Spanish television program “Al filo de lo imposible” (“On the Edge of the Impossible”). Like Fredi, Arza experienced a spinal cord injury but found ways to adapt and continue engaging in adventurous sports. Fredi recalls a powerful statement by Arza: “He had a magnificent phrase: that you should always carry your wheelchair under your ass, not on your head.” Despite enduring personal hardships, including the loss of a son, Arza remained resilient and optimistic, serving as a source of inspiration for Fredi.
“If I have to think of someone instrumental in helping me move forward, it’s my wife, my partner in this journey,” Fredi acknowledges. “But I believe that each of us can find the right attitude within ourselves. It’s inherent in all of us; we just need to seek out the positive aspects,” he adds. Reflecting on his own experience, Fredi emphasizes the importance of gaining perspective, saying, “We should all, with all due respect, visit that paraplegic hospital in Toledo and witness what is there.”
In December 2003, a driver sent by EHN’s CEO picked Fredi up at the hospital. When he arrived at his destination in Pamplona, he found three hundred colleagues at the Christmas party of what would become ACCIONA Energía the following year. “It was a great moment… In theory, no one knew about it except the CEO, the party organizer, and the Human Resources Director. To show up as a surprise and witness the genuine emotions of the people is one of my life’s greatest moments; it’s priceless.” This unexpected and heartfelt welcome at the Christmas party held a significance that went far beyond symbolism.
“Antxón Arza had a magnificent phrase: that you should always carry your wheelchair under your ass, not on your head.”
“That moment was a small indication of the essence of this company and what it represents in terms of open doors. I remember the communication department asking, ‘Can Fredi come with us?’ I wanted to continue working in biomass, and they fully embraced my decision. It’s not easy for a company to accommodate an employee who has suddenly developed paraplegia.” Reflecting on his passion for the job, Fredi adds, “I was deeply committed to my work, driven by the desire to make the most of my time, enthusiasm, and experience. I made the conscious choice to continue working.”
In addition to recognizing the importance of embracing diversity, Fredi believes that a company should also be built on a shared sense of purpose, as mentioned earlier. He explains, “At Acciona Energía, many individuals genuinely appreciate our work… There are days when it’s challenging for all of us to get out of bed. Still, our commitment is driven by the fact that what we do benefits the planet, ourselves, our communities, society, humanity, the environment, ecosystems… We work for something we truly believe in, something that helps us stay true to ourselves.”
“I wanted to continue working in biomass, and they fully embraced my decision. It’s not easy for a company to accommodate an employee who has suddenly developed paraplegia.”
Fredi’s professional journey has undergone an evolution, transitioning from fieldwork to a focus on theoretical analysis. Following a collaboration between Acciona Energía and Ernst & Young, he helped develop a groundbreaking socio-economic impact model for renewable energy. This innovative model has successfully demonstrated the potential of clean energy in projects like the MacIntyre wind farm in Australia, which stands as one of the largest of its kind globally.
“There are days when it’s challenging for all of us to get out of bed. Still, our commitment is driven by the fact that what we do benefits the planet, ourselves, our communities, society, humanity, the environment, ecosystems…”
This internally developed methodology plays a vital role in comprehending the diverse impacts of renewable energy, whether it’s a biomass plant, wind farm, or solar plant. It provides insights into the positive effects these projects have on the local area, such as income generation, contribution to the gross domestic product, reduction in carbon emissions, and employment opportunities. Behind this pursuit to transform the world lies the power of data analysis and artificial intelligence, enabling them to optimize their efforts. He tells, for example, how analytics helped them to achieve a greater positive impact at the local level in that Australian wind farm. “We must emphasize the significance of clean, renewable, and locally sourced energy. The fact that renewable energies are domestically produced is a tremendously valuable asset,” Fredi reflects. In conclusion, he affirms, “It must be acknowledged: ACCIONA Energía has been driving global change for over twenty years.”
“It must be acknowledged: ACCIONA Energía has been driving global change for over twenty years.”
Dreams and memories of a joyful homo sapiens
They say that in life you should plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. For Fredi, establishing a biomass plant could be considered an extension of the forestry aspect. As for having children, he has more than fulfilled that quota: he became a father to triplets in 2007, a few years after his accident. Balancing his family life, work, and disability has been made possible mainly through the support of his wife.
And as for the third task, Fredi has been musing about his future autobiography. Of course, it is challenging to make time when you are busy changing the world and caring for three children going through puberty. For the time being, he does have a title in mind. While some authors would focus on the most dramatic episodes, Fredi has a clear vision for his book. He intends to title it “Dreams and Memories of a Joyful Homo Sapiens.”
As we conclude the interview, Fredi shares that he regularly engages in sports activities. He mentions completing a marathon using a hand bike and covering an average of twenty kilometers per day. While he can no longer play rugby or indulge in mountaineering as before, he seizes every opportunity to go wheelchair skiing or explore wheelchair-accessible routes, including those in Ordesa. It has always been his mantra, guiding his personal life and approach to the world’s finite resources: make the most of what you have.
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