COVID-19: How solar is adapting
Evert Vlaswinkel, MD for EMEA, considers the current challenges we face, how Solarcentury is adapting, and why now is the time for change
To work in solar, you need to be resilient, adaptable and committed to acting on climate science, as over the years we’ve overcome a great many challenges. We’ve dealt with the financial crisis of 2008, supply issues, Government policy U-turns, Minimum Import Pricing, and now we’re proving our salt in the midst of a global pandemic.
When times are tough, we’ve always had our sights firmly focused on the bigger picture; building a global energy infrastructure that is free from fossil fuels. It gives us the confidence to tackle any challenge because we know that what we’re doing is right. And because, in comparison with the energy incumbency, we are fit, agile and nimble.
Solarcentury’s business activity is to develop, build, own and operate utility-scale solar. We’re currently developing a 6GWp pipeline across Europe, Africa and Latin America, and are on site constructing more than 600MWp of solar capacity in Spain and the Netherlands. But, with our markets in a state of lockdown, how is solar faring?
On the development side, permitting is continuing. It’s slowed down, but fortunately is still moving forwards as most planning authorities are proving they can work effectively from home.
At the same time, we too have adapted quickly to new ways of working, to limit the impact of COVID-19 on our planned development activity.
We normally involve local communities in the development process by holding public consultation events. As meeting in person is not an option, we are publishing the materials online, strongly encouraging communities to get in touch with us by writing to them, placing articles in local newspapers, and running online surveys. We have just run our first Digital Information Night in the Netherlands where a local community near a planned solar farm was invited to talk to us via an open forum online – answering their questions via a substantial virtual team including ecologists and solar experts – demonstrating just what can be achieved through new uses of technology.
On the construction side, we are also making progress. The sites we have under construction are open. We have changed our working procedures to make best use of the large, open air spaces that our teams work in, while delaying any construction activity that requires team members to work in close proximity to one another.
Welfare facilities on site have been expanded to allow for the safe separation of workers, while communal areas have been closed to prevent group gatherings. Delivery drivers are segregated from the usual workforce and the presence of new contractors on site has been minimised. Sanitation materials are being provided, cleaning has increased, and outdoor ‘toolbox talks’ have allowed us to ensure everyone is aware of how to stay safe and what to do if they feel ill.
Thanks to these measures, construction has been able to continue across our territories, and at a good pace.
We are in the midst of an artificial demand shock. However, as the lockdown continues, real damage to demand will increase; the bounce back will take longer and the banks will take longer to get back to normal which will impact the supply of debt.
However, whatever the eventual depth of the global recession, we would expect utilities to be less affected than almost any other sector, with renewable generation likely to be strongly favoured given it is significantly more cost-effective and less volatile than fossil fuels.
It’s worth looking back to the last global crisis in 2008, after which fossil fuel generation took a substantial hit. As demand for fossil fuels slumped, brand new power plants were moth-balled while many utilities companies saw the writing on the wall and took the opportunity to reinvent themselves by turning to renewables.
Following this latest crisis, we expect this switch to accelerate yet again, as renewable energy generation is now not only considerably cheaper than fossil fuels, but as an industry it also benefits from the support of Governments, policy makers and the general public, who are more committed than ever to seeing the global energy transition .
Emerging from the current crisis
While the full impact of COVID-19 on the solar sector is yet to be seen (and will depend on how long it takes for development activity to ramp back up to full steam), there are a great many reasons to be hopeful that solar will not only emerge from this crisis in a strong position, but will also continue the exponential growth that it has seen over recent years.
With global policy makers under intense pressure to protect their people and re-start their respective economies as we emerge from this crisis, now is the ideal time for true transformative change, that can create jobs, reduce costs and deliver a brighter future.
Which is why world leaders must now hold their course and stick to their climate change pledges; a large part of which is fully acknowledging the astonishing role solar can play in achieving 100% renewable power. We call for all post-COVID stimulus packages to come with stringent carbon strings attached. Rather than picking up where we left off, with an energy mix full of unclaimed potential, policy makers can use this fracture in business-as-usual to take ambitious strides and improve a broken system.
Whilst much is uncertain, what we know for sure is that the solar industry is resilient, agile and ambitious. We will survive and thrive on the other side of the pandemic, and must continue to fight what remains the biggest crisis facing our generation: climate chaos.
Read more on the science behind the climate crisis, and our call for change here.