The Reason we are Here? To Drive the Energy Transition Forward
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21 November, 2022
November Issue by Energy Focus.

 

Sonnedix is a Renewable Energy Producer (REP) that develops, builds, and operates renewable energy projects, focusing on the provision of green, affordable electricity to customers around the world. With exciting projects underway, the company is looking forward to a period of long-term, sustainable growth as its pipeline materialises. “We want to tell our children that we at least tried to make a difference in this challenge we all face rather than hoping someone else would solve the problem,” he tells Energy Focus.

In Chile, at the Meseta de Los Andes solar project development site, 160 MW of green electricity will soon flow from a vast 250-hectare site, deep in the Valparaíso region, 80km north of Santiago. More than 2,700 hours of sunshine blasts down here every year.

Glinting in the sun, solar panels in long rows will harness the abundant resource, creating clean and sustainable power, sent along a 15km 220kv transmission line to the Los Maquis substation. From here, power will flow to cover the needs of 180,000 Chilean homes, avoiding 160,000 tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. 386,750MWh of clean energy will be produced each year. It’s a major success story.

The project comes from leading international renewable energy producer Sonnedix. Currently, the company has 7.8 GW of total capacity around the world and is busy ramping up development to contribute to the energy transition in a big way.

Chile is a strong focus region for Sonnedix (the company already owns 15 operating plants in Chile, delivering more than 244 MW with a further 1GW in the pipeline – excluding the 160 MW in Los Andes), but the company’s reach is global - Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Spain, USA, , and Japan all host Sonnedix infrastructure.

CEO Axel Thiemann was in Chile recently overseeing this exciting and important project. “I love visiting the sites,” he tells Energy Focus. “Seeing where investment goes is motivating and inspiring – it’s so much more than electrons and spreadsheets on a screen. Our sites are fascinating, they are so large that seeing the scale really drives the purpose around making the world a better place, and that is exciting.”

 

DRIVING TRANSITION

Established in 2009, Sonnedix saw the opportunity for solar energy to make a difference with the drastic decrease in cost of technology. The global rollout has been dramatic and solar is now widely accepted as a sustainable form of power generation.

“When we started, we were focussed on France, Italy, and Spain – the European feed in tariff markets. Everything we did was subsidised and we believed in the future of renewable energy and the future of solar, but back then we were not competitive with conventional generation,” details Thiemann. “We faced various challenges that led us to a more global investment. Energy is a strategic sector, and every country makes their own decisions but even with renewables going global, the local pictures can change – doors open and close. We wanted to have a more global investment footprint early on and we moved into Japan, Chile, and Puerto Rico. We grew from there and we were lucky, finding supremely talented team members who worked very hard to get us to where we are today.”

Last year, the International Renewable Energy Agency found that modern, sustainable energy generating projects could deliver cost savings of $156 billion to emerging economies. An IREA report showed that 162 GW or 62% of total renewable power generation added in 2020 had lower costs than the cheapest new fossil fuel option. Renewable energy is undoubtedly the way forward when it comes to powering industrial, commercial, and consumer life, and Thiemann is happy that costs are aligning.

“Solar is one of the areas where a concentrated industrial support policy, with feed in tariffs and subsidies to bring scale, has been successful. Costs for solar PV panels have dropped by more than 90% from the very early days and solar is now cost competitive with conventional generation in most parts of the world,” he explains. “Today, more than two thirds of people live in places where wind and solar are the cheapest forms of generation. Not just cheaper than new build, but cheaper than running already existing conventional power plants. The decision is now whether to continue running an existing coal plant or whether to build a solar plant. That is really fantastic for the energy transition and supports our purpose.

“The reason we are here is to drive the energy transition forward, doing the best we can to provide cost efficient, green electricity – as much as we can,” he adds.

BUILDING WITH PURPOSE

While many companies have been dashed by challenging economic conditions and uncertainty following the pandemic and local political instability, Sonnedix has remained concentrated on its vision, starting projects, and pursuing growth continuously.

Today, Sonnedix’s international credentials are on full display as it progresses developments around the world. Recently, the company acquired a 36 MWp operating solar plant in Spain. Sonnedix entered Portugal by acquiring a 262MWp PV portfolio under development. A 14MWp PV plant was recently completed in Hirono, on Japan’s Pacific coast. Five solar PV projects will soon begin generating in Italy in Lazio and Piemonte, totalling 50MW. In October, the company announced the acquisition of its first solar and wind platform with 290MW operating in Chile. Earlier this year, the company entered the Polish market by acquiring a local developer. Along with a number of other exciting developments in 2022 alone, the company is increasingly active, always searching for new opportunities. Thiemann highlights Poland, Portugal, the UK, and Germany as other areas where there has been recent success, and he expects European rollout to accelerate with a strong pipeline across the continent.

“In Italy, we just started new plant construction again – for the first time in more than 10 years. Development started more than two years ago, and it is now coming to fruition”.

“We just started construction in Poland,” he adds. “It’s a small project, almost a proof of concept to make sure we fully understand the processes and interconnection requirements to move forwards with confidence on our almost 1GW development pipeline.”

“Our largest project under construction currently is the site in Chile and we are looking forward to seeing that fantastic project complete early next year. There is a lot of activity, and we have a lot to be proud of. We have an amazing team that is driving us. There are a lot of firsts happening and we are hopeful that it will stay that way.”

For the CEO – a former electrical engineer with experience across consultancy and banking - a truly exciting proposition comes in the form of hybridisation of systems, adding wind to solar, and integrating renewable energy systems to provide further certainty in supply.

“In some countries, we are reaching significant market share of renewable energy in the electricity supply, and we are looking at how to provide that energy when it is needed and not just when the sun shines or when the wind blows. That is where we want to focus so that we can be very competitive, and customer focused in all of the countries that we operate in.

“We recently moved into wind from our latest acquisition in Chile, because we believe that the next challenge will be to hybridise with mixed generation from wind, solar, storage, and potentially other technologies such as hydrogen, to provide baseload electricity,” he says.

“For now, we are a working with wind in Chile as the power markets there are one of the earliest liberalised globally and one of the most advanced. This is where operating wind and solar together makes sense today because they have a lot of resources with complex grid. In most parts of Europe, our primary focus today is growing our solar portfolio and preparing for the deployment of storage. It’s about the interplay between industry and regulation – as of today, it is not necessarily profitable yet to operate storage in many countries, but we see the need for it increasing as more renewable generation is deployed and we are confident that regulators will provide frameworks to allow this type of technology to take off.”

In October, Sonnedix acquired ARCO, one of the largest independent renewable power producers in Chile, entering the wind generation space. With this addition, Sonnedix reached over 1GW of total capacity in Chile.

 

CRISIS SOLUTION?

In Europe, the energy crisis, driven by natural gas supply uncertainty as a result of the Russia / Ukraine war, sees many countries worried about meeting demand with supply. While this is an opportunity for policy makers to invest in a renewable system of the future, there is no doubt that the transition must be managed. For Sonnedix, provision of cheap, green, and reliable power has been at the company’s raison d'être. Thiemann sees the company as uniquely placed to assist in the transition and provide certainty where there are challenges.

“We must be customer focussed and we must understand what our customers want,” he insists.

“We must navigate the energy crisis in Europe. What we’re seeing is dramatic and not sustainable from a humanitarian perspective. The energy price increases, partially driven by the war, are tough – and they come at the same time as inflation and interest rates were already rising, and the supply chains were tight partially as a late pandemic effect. The rapid and repeated regulatory actions to protect end customers, particularly from the energy price changes, are challenging. It is clear that the end customer must be protected, but it is very important that is done in a measured way, and we are seeing many unintended consequences from price caps, windfall taxes, and other market measures which combined with the uncertainty from inflation and interest rates, have the potential to set the energy transition back.

“At the same time, we believe that renewables can play a major role in mitigating the energy crisis and provide energy security. Today, we are the fastest to deploy new energy sources and the big blockers, on top of uncertain regulations such as permitting timelines – so we must figure out how we can streamline these processes and work with communities that we impact to ensure they get what they need, and we are the good neighbours that they deserve.”

Increasing inflation, increasing interest rates, and volatility in power pricing continues to shake up the industry in a big way. But the low-cost nature of solar makes it increasingly appealing, not just in Europe but around the world.

“Even if our input costs go up, and our prices rise, we are still the cheapest producers. We will be able to sell our electricity as long as we develop and operate well. We are financially well-backed, and we can weather short term issues,” explains Thiemann.

If solving an energy crisis, driving an energy transition, and building a sustainable business are the outcomes of current activities for Sonnedix, Thiemann is happy that the business is achieving its goals, but he reminds that customer satisfaction must never be overlooked.

“We will continue to build as much to allow coal and gas to be switched off so that we can drive the energy transition forward. Things are getting more complicated as it’s not easy to simply complete ‘more of the same’. It’s about understanding customers’ needs, providing them with whatever we can do to fit their requirements – and customers are not the only off-takers that need electricity, there’s also the grid operators and regulators. Our big focus is on interacting with all of them successfully.”

 

PEOPLE POWERED

The true power of Sonnedix, the spark that drives new ideas and fresh concepts, comes from the team. Around 500 people around the world work towards a united vision that permeates all cultures and geographies.

“There are a lot of things happening and luckily, we have good people that are driving this forward.,” states Thiemann. “Everyone faces the same opportunities and challenges in the industry and what we have built is a great team that is engaged, dynamic, aligned with a purpose, and working very hard towards this.

“We have a long-term focus, while some of our competitors are owned by big financial players with a five-to-eight-year horizon which makes planning difficult if you think strategically. Our differentiator is our people. We are in an industry that is growing fast and is relatively new, competing in many parts of the world. Putting steel, glass, silicon, copper, and aluminium together is not rocket science – but it’s not easy either– it is people that make it come to life. They develop, finance, build, and contract solar farms and drive it all forward. Having the right team in place is the ultimate secret behind our success,” he adds.

The company is highly distributed with teams spread from north to south and east to west, covering almost the entire map, and hoping for a larger presence in the future. Sonnedix employees take the vision of ‘powering a brighter future’ as a serious purpose.

“We have taken it as a challenge and used it as a strength by understanding how and why we work together and building a culture around that, with a sense that we work as one team. Working across time zones and cultural backgrounds is tough, from Chile to Japan to Italy, but is made possible by aligned in terms of our purpose,” says Thiemann.

This purpose is taking the company into the future in strong shape. Growth is in motion, and Thiemann – who joined the business 11 years ago, attracted by an organisation with a true purpose – believes Sonnedix is looking at a long and sustainable trajectory.

“We are growing through multiple strategies,” he details. “We do early-stage development, we develop with partners, we buy late-stage and operating projects, and we buy platform companies where it addresses a strategic need.”

“In terms of growth,” he adds. “I believe we will continue to grow across all different avenues depending on what the opportunities look like in each country. We have more recently focused a lot more on development as an engine of growth, but I don’t think acquisitions will slow down. As newly developed plants come online, there is a whole new potential area for us to buy and free up capital for other developers to do more of the same.”

Importantly, any growth comes with more contribution to a global initiative – the energy transition. Net-zero by 2050 and ending reliance on fossil fuels in favour of clean, accessible, affordable, sustainable, and reliable energy sources are the goals set out by the United Nations, Sonnedix is playing its part.

“There is a long runway for growth in renewable energy. We are taking other sources of conventional power offline, and we see much more electrification happening, from electric cars to replacing fossil fuel heating. We must achieve success in the countries we are in today and expand where it makes sense,” confirms Thiemann.

If Sonnedix can take its concept, like the Meseta de Los Andes solar project in Chile, and roll out in more countries, adding wind power and other energy sources to the mix, the full potential of the renewable energy sector will begin to be felt. With all OECD countries as potential targets, there remains so much opportunity to take ideas out of spreadsheets and onto sites.

Thiemann, who came into Sonnedix with a goal of taking action rather than waiting for others to do so, is passionate about future success and considers now the perfect time to flourish.

“As a company, clearly growth is our goal. Now that we are cost competitive, and the climate change has so much awareness, this is the right time to grow,” he smiles.

 

Read the full issue here.

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