Sébastien Clerc, CEO of Voltalia, a French renewables producer, tells Nomura Greentech that energy dependence concerns will accelerate the rollout of renewables in Europe.
What made you join Voltalia and what first triggered your interest in sustainability?
I arrived in renewables by chance having been involved in small projects since the 1990s. In the beginning, it was just part of my work and today, 100% of deployment is renewables.
I worked on my first wind farm in California in 1994 while I was based in the US. When I returned to France in 1999, I was involved in wind and solar projects as well as highways, ports and pipelines.
I joined Voltalia at the end of 2011 as it was a way to fully concentrate on sustainable infrastructure and renewable energy in particular. It was becoming quite obvious at the time that renewables were cost competitive versus other energy sources.
I have mixed feelings. I’m optimistic about a bigger market share of renewables within electricity generation and about the market share of electricity within the overall universe of energy consumption.
It moves at a pace that might be too slow but it’s the easiest part of the net zero equation because renewables are so cost effective.
Where I’m really doubtful is outside the world of electricity. Some transportation will be difficult to electrify. I’m also concerned about agriculture, which is a big challenge to decarbonize.
For the hydro sector, In many countries, the best sites are already taken, making progress difficult other than by buying existing assets but that doesn’t move the dial on climate change.
Biomass has similar challenges. It is better off for heating or transportation without going through electricity to avoid the conversion from wood to electricity and then electricity to heating, where you lose a lot of the potential.
Also, it should really be burned locally to avoid transportation emissions. On top of that, its best use is when you have nothing better to do with it. For instance, we are involved in biomass in Latin America and French Guyana where you don’t need heating. So either you leave it on the floor and it creates emissions or you burn it to produce electricity.
Our energy efficiency business is operated through our subsidiary Helexia, which specializes in solar rooftops for large buildings such as warehouses – anywhere with a big flat roof.
It offers building owners the chance to self-produce solar electricity onsite and to minimize electricity consumption through efficiency gains by redoing isolation and modernizing heating/cooling systems.
Helexia acts either as a service provider or as an owner of the solar rooftop and the energy efficiency investments and gets paid from the client’s energy savings.
This is where I’m optimistic. It will happen fast provided two conditions are met. One is to speed up the permitting process with the biggest constraint being the ‘not in my backyard’ brigade or just too much bureaucracy. The second condition is to create a low risk environment for investors.
Risks can be lowered via long-term power purchase agreements or long-term contracts for difference which swap the fixed versus floating price of electricity. Low risk speeds up the construction of new plants and provides a low cost of capital.
Yes. I’ve long said that the renewables sector is driven by four growth engines: 1. governments who want to fight climate change; 2. cost competitiveness; 3. the growing global demand for electricity; 4. geostrategic independence via locally produced energy.
For the past 12 months, I see more questions on this subject.
Ultimately, the increased capacity in solar means Europe won’t be held hostage by Russia in future.
It is pretty clear that European electricity has mainly come from gas and coal plus some nuclear and renewables. Gas is not coming back. It would take a lot of time to fix the Nord Stream pipelines and for geopolitical reasons, even if there was regime change in Russia, I think Europe would be more cautious than before.
I don’t see coal production increasing because Europe is genuinely fighting climate change. That means we are left with more nuclear, solar and wind.
More nuclear is not possible in many European countries for historical reasons. And in countries where it is doable, it will take 20 years. There is an ambition to create small modular reactors but it’s currently just an ambition. For those countries that don’t have a nuclear authority, it can easily take 15 years to create one taking into account new laws, institutions, training specialists and hiring industry monitors.
Then there’s the issue of sourcing uranium. It’s a small portion of the cost of a nuclear kilowatt hour, but it is still essential to produce nuclear power and as of today, France imports a big portion of its uranium from Russia.
Nuclear is only independently produced electricity if you have raw materials, and Europe doesn’t produce uranium. For all of these reasons, the only way forward for Europe is to build as much renewable capacity as possible as fast as possible.
We set a new plan last year to double our installed renewables capacity by 2027 to 5 gigawatts and to significantly increase our services to third parties, which will add another 8 gigawatts for clients.
Historically, we have invested in wind but new projects are increasingly solar because in most countries it produces cheaper electricity.
But in all countries, you need a mix of renewables. We see progress in Africa because of the energy crisis in South Africa and the hydrogen ambitions of countries such as Egypt. Latin America especially Brazil continues to grow and it’s where we have the largest capacity today.
Governments are one of the four growth engines I referred to earlier, so a faster engine benefits the whole industry but it is still only one out of four.
The IRA and Green Deal are both good for the industry yet it’s also possible to be good and protectionist. So, while these policies will boost growth, if they include too much protectionism, it means the US and Europe will have a higher cost of energy.
It would be good risk management to produce solar panels in more countries around the world because it creates stability, but we would need to make sure the countries which take market share from China are cost competitive in order to maintain cheap energy.
If all sources of energy compete for long-term PPAs, we would have the best of both worlds – the benefits of strong competition plus low cost of capital because producers like us will ask for a lower return on equity and the banks will accept higher leverage and lower interest rates because of the certainty provided by long-term PPAs.
It’s a well-designed, sophisticated market and it’s naïve to think that people will build power plants hoping that the spot price will be the same for the next 30 years to get a return.
Capex is not changing and isn’t dependent on the spot price, so strong competition for long-term contracts is the best outcome.
A good regulator will ask distributors of electricity to have a big chunk of their volume with long-term purchases exactly the same way as regulators ask banks who make long-term loans to do so with long-term borrowing.
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