With Much of the World’s Economy Slowed Down, Green Energy Powers On

Source: By Stanley Reed, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Wind giants are trying to shrug off the effects of the pandemic.

The East Anglia One wind turbine project off Britain’s east coast.  
Suzie Howell for The New York Times

The East Anglia One wind turbine project off Britain’s east coast.  Suzie Howell for The New York Times

After a two-hour boat trip from Lowestoft, a seaside town on the east coast of England, giant wind mills more than 500 feet high loomed out of the mist like enormous sea creatures. High atop the towers, technicians in helmets and red-and-black protective suits were visible, fine-tuning the machines and hooking them up to the British power system.

Britain has been under various stages of lockdown since March, but work on this wind farm, called East Anglia One, has charged ahead.

But early on, the companies behind the 2.5 billion pound ($3.1 billion) project weren’t so sure.

As the coronavirus was gathering momentum across Europe, managers called a one-day halt in late March to consider whether pushing forward made sense. New health and safety measures would inevitably drain resources.

“We had to do a check and say ‘OK, should the project continue?’ and we asked ourselves with a very open mind,” said Charlie Jordan, the project director for Iberdrola, the Spanish utility developing the project.

The answer was “yes.” Work resumed the next day, and hasn’t stopped.

“We had to do a check and say ‘OK, should the project continue?’” said Charlie Jordan, director of the East Anglia One offshore project.
Suzie Howell for The New York Times

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has many businesses reeling, and the oil and gas industry in particular has been rocked by plummeting prices that have forced it to drastically cut production and lay off workers.

But producers of clean energy are pushing hard to get their projects up and running. They want to start making money on their investments as soon as possible, and while demand for electricity has been reduced by the impact of the virus, renewable power tends to win out over polluting sources in electricity systems because of low costs and favorable regulatory rules.

While crews fixed the huge turbines to the seabed off the English coast in April, Iberdrola began producing power from what it says is Europe’s largest solar energy facility, in western Spain.

Mr. Jordan, the offshore project manager, said that he and his colleagues figured that they could take steps to keep risks under control. Among other things, contractors rented holiday cabins and reached agreements with hotels near Lowestoft, the operations base, so that they could house some of the offshore workers there and keep them isolated. Workers were taken out by boats to the wind farm for 12-hour day and night shifts.

So far, no one working on the project has become ill with the coronavirus, according to Mr. Jordan.

Charlotte de la Fuente for The New York Times

All of the 102 turbines are now installed in an area about 25 miles off the coastline. The nearly 250-foot blades on top of these monsters can spin out enough power to supply around 600,000 homes, according to the company.

Demand for the equipment for these projects is putting pressure on makers of gear to keep their factories churning. Vestas Wind Systems, for instance, is striving to keep a global network that includes plants in Colorado, China, Denmark and elsewhere largely open to meet a record first-quarter order book of 34.1 billion euros for its giant electric power-generating windmills and services.

Suzie Howell for The New York Times

“We started out differently, saying ‘Let’s not use the excuse of Covid-19,’” said Henrik Andersen, the chief executive of Vestas, which is based in Denmark.

Suzie Howell for The New York Times
Suzie Howell for The New York Times
Suzie Howell for The New York Times
Suzie Howell for The New York Times

Vestas, too, points to a variety of measures it has taken to keep workers safe. At its factory in Denmark that makes nacelles, the chambers at the top of turbines, safety measures are visible, especially in the canteen. The meals now come on prepared plates rather than buffet style, and employees eat in shifts to reduce crowding. People sit diagonally across from one another at tables.

“It is strange having to keep distance to your co-workers when you are so used to being close,” said Julie Noesgaard, who packages parts for shipment.

The pandemic is certainly throwing up obstacles for these companies. Vestas said that in the first quarter matters like delays in obtaining components and changes in work procedures added 10 million or $10.8 million in costs, contributing to an 80 million loss. The company said it was suspending guidance for the year.

Charlotte de la Fuente for The New York Times

Markus Tacke, who until recently served as chief executive of Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy, which made the East Anglia turbines, said during a call with reporters that the dire health situation in Italy and travel restrictions in India this year prevented him from signing two contracts, though he assumed the deals would be concluded later.

The green energy industry has bad memories of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, which proved to be a big setback. Vestas was forced into closing or selling a dozen factories and shedding a third of its work force as orders fell. Other manufacturers were similarly rocked.

Analysts say that while the renewables industry will not be immune to the effects of the pandemic, it is likely to fare better this time around.

Charlotte de la Fuente for The New York Times

“The outlook for renewables looks really quite resilient, despite all the Covid restrictions,” said Sam Arie, a utilities analyst at UBS, an investment bank. “We have seen a few companies with minor interruptions,” he added. “But relative to other sectors the impacts here have been very limited.”