The story of the year for the renewable energy industry was the same as for the world as a whole – the fight against coronavirus and Covid-19.
The pandemic – at that stage still a localised health emergency for China – first appeared on the Recharge website in January, when global energy players began restricting travel and a Chinese renewable energy executive was sadly confirmed as one of its earliest victims.
As the power of the virus to paralyse whole industries became clear, Henrik Andersen, CEO of wind giant Vestas, in early February predicted that a prolonged outbreak could amount to “pandemic force majeure” that would test the resilience of renewables and every other sector.
Andersen’s words proved prophetic, and over the course of 2020 Recharge reported the efforts of major OEMs to keep factories producing, developers to keep construction on track and operators to keep plants running.
While the financial hit was in some cases huge, the energy transition stayed on track, with the word “proud” routinely used, whether to describe record US wind installations or the completion of a giant North Sea wind farm amid pandemic restrictions.
Vestas’s Andersen by November was paying tribute to employees who managed a 59% year-on-year delivery growth over the first nine months of the year in the teeth of a global pandemic.
One of the few good news stories of the Covid pandemic has been the shift in thinking it has prompted over an energy transition that most now accept should be faster and deeper than previously envisaged, with politicians around the world pledging to “build back better”, or variations on the same theme, after a start to the year that saw fossil fuel consumption collapse – with clearer skies and cleaner air the reward.
Big Oil's green shift
On the subject of cleaning up your act, 2020 will also be remembered as the year many of the world’s oil giants got serious about renewables as demand for their core products hit that virus-induced wall.
The year has seen supermajors Total and BP enter the offshore wind sector with a vengeance, the former in Europe and later Asia, and the latter in a dramatic tie-up with fellow oil & gas group Equinor in the US.
More widely, France-based Total and UK giant BP spent 2020 in a sort of race to renewables, setting 2030 targets that if achieved will put them at the front rank of global clean energy purely on capacity owned.
As the US oil giants remained rooted to the spot, Europe’s led the way. Shell and Equinor maintained their energy transition momentum, while southern European players Repsoland Eni added to theirs – in the case of Eni taking a 20% share in the 3.6GW Dogger Bank project that will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm.
The massively expanded energy transition ambitions of the oil & gas sector intensified debate during the year. Have fossil giants got what it takes to succeed in a power-based industry? Is it all ‘greenwash’, given that the overwhelming majority of investment by the majors will still be fossil-based for the foreseeable future?
Two of the year’s most pragmatic comments on that subject came from each side of the power and oil divide. Iberdrola’s offshore wind chief Jonathan Cole told a Recharge digital roundtable on the future of floating wind how that sector would need huge amounts of capital to fulfil its equally huge potential – and if the oil & gas sector can help supply it, the energy transition will be the winner.
Total’s renewables and power head Philippe Sauquet made a similar point during an exclusive interview with Recharge on its energy transition plans, pointing out that development at the scale needed to hit climate goals takes “cash and cash and cash,” – the sort of funds that, even as they hit a downturn, the world’s oil & gas giants are perhaps uniquely positioned to bring to the table.
To finish the last Recharge Agenda of 2020, a few more of the themes of the year
Green hydrogen continued to be hailed as the energy’s transition’s missing link, with this year’s standout being scale – giant projects are planned in Australia, Saudi Arabia and the North Sea, and the EU’s H2 strategy raised the bar for policy-led ambition.
Offshore wind turbines just keep getting bigger. Siemens Gamesa is now marketing a 15MW titan and GE Renewable Energy just this week said its Haliade-X will hit 14MW for the final stage of Dogger Bank. All eyes will be on MHI Vestas to see what it will do under full Vestas control.
Onshore turbines keep growing too. Siemens Gamesa, Vestas, GE and Nordex are all now offering 6MW models on land – a rating that not many years ago would have been startling for an offshore machine.
This was the year corporate renewable energy went mainstream. The world’s tech giants continued to lead the way – Amazon took first place from Google as largest procurer of wind and solar – but they were joined by heavy industries, pharmaceuticals, retail and fast food, as the world’s corporations set out to realise their lofty sustainability ambitions.
Last but not least, it will soon be time to say farewell to Donald Trump, who stayed true to form in his losing US election campaign when he described wind power as a "pipe dream". “It’s got a lot of problems," was the soon-to-be ex-President's verdict on the sector, before the US electorate decided the same was actually true about him.
It was quite a year – for better or worse. Recharge Agenda will return in 2021 and wishes all readers a peaceful and healthy holiday season.