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Renewables Have Come of Age with COVID-19.

Published on 27th of April 2020

Chris Brown
President of Sales and Service in the United States and Canada at Vestas

Personal and social lessons of the COVID crisis are still emerging, but I can already tell you my professional takeaway: Renewable energy is now an essential industry. We’ve been talking about the industry coming of age for years, but before the crucible of COVID it was just talk. Now it’s real: When other businesses close, we stay open. When other businesses stop building, we keep building. When other businesses scale back operations, we keep operating at 100%. We make sacrifices and we adapt, because that’s what being an essential industry means.

Essential Means Responsible

Since the first COVID closures we’ve kept every part of this industry moving. It goes without saying that existing plants have kept generating energy for the grid, but we’ve also kept building new plants, kept producing wind turbines and solar panels, kept doing service and repairs, kept designing new products. Just Monday, Knox Cameron of DTE Energy closed a new 500,000 MWh solar deal with GM. Across the industry, we’ve kept the whole pipeline moving the way it has to move not just to keep the lights on today but to keep the lights on in five years, ten years, thirty years. With a few wrinkles to accommodate remote inspections, we’ve even kept the permitting process going. We’re doing everything we were doing before COVID.

It’s all harder now, just as it is everywhere. The last month has been a whirlwind of emergency calls with global leadership, emergency Zoom meetings with industry groups, emergency councils to coordinate state government responses. Like everyone else, we’re facing stress. We have to figure out how to keep our employees safe, how to strengthen global supply chains in the face of an uncertain future. Meanwhile energy demand is dropping. People can’t pay their utility bills. Businesses closing means more lost revenue. Every part of the industry has novel challenges, and they require novel solutions.

But we haven’t retreated. As hard as it is, we haven’t decided it’s too hard, that someone else is going to have to carry the weight. All the players have come through, from IPPs to developers, utilities to construction companies. From outside you would never guess the energy and commitment that has gone into responding to this crisis. It’s been an unexpected and brutal test, but I’ve been impressed with the strength it’s brought out of not only my staff but our partners and peers across the industry. In a way we surprised ourselves: We were better than we thought we were.

This is what I mean when I say we’ve performed like an essential industry. When you’re essential, a crisis calls forth strength, not surrender. When you’re essential, retreat is not an option. Retreat is a luxury that non-essential industries can afford and you cannot. Being essential means you’re responsible for something that cannot stop and nobody but you is going to keep it going.

Essential Means Authorized

Frustratingly, during this crisis the renewables industry has occasionally had to fight to convince local authorities that we are essential. To a certain extent I can see where they’re coming from; for a long time renewable energy was an option, the environmental icing on the energy cake. Local power companies liked to put pictures of wind turbines in their brochures, but it hardly mattered if those turbines stopped turning. Some investors were in the industry more to play with tax credits than because they wanted to operate an essential service. Renewables were nice, maybe promising, but not necessary.

When COVID shutdowns first started, some bureaucrats and police departments still had that idea. As lockdowns tightened, they wanted to know why construction crews were still out there building wind farms. Coal and gas plants might be essential, but wind farms? Go home and put on a Jerry Garcia record, hippie, and let the adults take care of business.

We’ve had to tell them: We are supplying power to your communities 24/7/365. We are building this wind farm now because your community is going to need this power next year. We are the adults here.

At the higher levels they already knew this; at the state government level, renewables have had a seat at the table since very early in the crisis. As the more local players see us meeting this challenge and future challenges like the adults we are, that knowledge is going to trickle down, and before long everybody is going to take for granted that the new wind farm is just as important as the new water treatment plant — which it is.

Essential Means Resilient

COVID might be the current crisis, but this coming of age isn’t just about COVID. Being an essential industry means we need to be ready for the next crisis too, and the next, and the next. When the earthquake hits and everything west of I-5 is smoking ruins, we need to be ready to keep going. Category 5 hurricane levels in Houston? We keep going. Supervolcano, EMP, zombie apocalypse? Renewable energy keeps going, 24/7/365.

I think all of us in the industry are in the same place right now. We sort of knew we were essential, but we hadn’t fully done the math about what that meant. We hadn’t bulletproofed ourselves. We’re responding well to this crisis, but it’s a warning as much as a test: What skillsets are we missing? Where do we go from here?

COVID calls for a change in our mindset, a change in the way we see our job. Our job used to be bringing prices down, building projects, closing deals, deepening our foothold in the fossil fuel-dominated energy world. That’s still our job, but we have a new job on top of that: We need to take the responsibility, do the math, make it bulletproof. We need to keep the growth mindset we have and layer a resilience mindset on top of it.

Utilities already have this mindset, because utilities have been doing it for years. Utilities know that when there’s an ice storm and everybody else is staying at home, they don’t get to stay at home. Instead they have to work harder. And when there’s no ice storm and everything is fine, they have to be planning for the next crisis. That kind of ethic isn’t yet ingrained in the culture of renewables, but that’s where we have to go.

Renewable energy isn’t a dream anymore. It isn’t a niche anymore. It’s the way things work, here, now, today. We’re meeting the COVID challenge, and we should pat ourselves on the back for that — at the same time as we think about how to make ourselves more resilient for whatever comes next..

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Keyword: Market Transition