May 2023 Issue by Energy Focus.
Leading international renewable energy producer, Sonnedix is glowing following an exceptional year in 2022. Last year, CEO Axel Thiemann told Energy Focus about the company’s ambition to aid the global energy transition in a meaningful way. This year, he explains that conditions have never been more favourable for sparking an acceleration in this vital industry.
Sonnedix is home to more than 500 team members across 10 countries, leading more than 475 projects with a total capacity of 9.4 GW. It is a solar and wind energy business, participating in the identification, development, construction, financing, and rollout and operation of hybrid renewable energy projects – providing green, affordable electricity to its customers.
“We’ve grown the portfolio to an impressive size, and we are at a very important point in the industry where economic viability and attractiveness meets political support. We are looking to take that opportunity and continue to grow aggressively,” Thiemann smiles. “The themes are growth, hybridization, customer focus, and digitalisation which makes the business more efficient. We are achieving that through a focus on the team. Ultimately, we are a business of people that do solar, wind, and storage. The other big enablers are the focus on long-term partnerships. We are in a relatively young industry that is growing rapidly and requires strong alliances. We want to be a long-term reliable partner on this journey.”
Demonstrating the ability of rays and gusts to replace fossils, Sonnedix is sure of the power of renewables, but is looking to combine systems to diversify and include more storage. It is becoming more vital for renewable energy sources to be made available consistently, easing their integration into the current grid where possible, to drive the energy transition forwards.
“As we are going towards a world with a lot more solar and wind in the generation stack, we must bring them together with storage. We have intermittent supply in the renewable space, but we must be able to supply electricity as and when it is needed so we are moving towards diversifying our portfolio from purely solar to add wind and storage. Chile is the first big example of that,” explains Thiemann.
In South America, oil, natural gas, and coal still make up the majority of energy supply. Hydro, wind, and solar are important growing elements, but remain smaller in terms of the overall mix. Chile, a liberal space where private investment in generation, transmission and distribution is enabled and encouraged, is aiming for 60% of total energy consumption to be delivered through renewables by 2030. These ambitions and conditions are attractive for Sonnedix.
In October 2022, the company acquired one of Chile’s largest independent renewable producers, ARCO to add to its own sizeable business in the country. Established by Arroyo Investors to make the most of Chilean renewables market opportunities, the company held 290 MW of exciting energy projects. Vitally for Sonnedix, the company’s portfolio was a hybrid of solar and wind.
“Since we began in Chile ten years ago, we have been deeply committed to helping the country to meet its renewable power targets, playing an active role in the energy transition,” said Sonnedix Executive Chairman, Carlos Guinand.
“The acquisition allowed us to meet the needs of the customer better rather than just producing solar electricity. From our perspective, Chile is one of the most advanced and liberal energy markets in the world, so we are pushing our advanced hybridisation activity with wind and solar,” adds Thiemann.
“This acquisition allows us to start to hybridize our generation profile and is the first step in our journey to become a true customer-oriented, risk-balanced, renewable energy solutions provider.”
Today, Sonnedix has more than 1.7 GW capacity in Chile – and just completed its Meseta 160MW solar PV plant – the largest close to Santiago, the capital and important load center, and is learning much from its operations on the ground.
In 2023, Sonnedix is flexing its power in Europe, clearly demonstrating its growth ambitions, on the one hand side acquiring a 136 MWp solar PV portfolio from Qualitas Energy, on the other hand side moving forwards with the conversion of its sizeable pipeline – having connected more than 100MW over the last 12 months and starting construction of another 150MW in Q1 2023.
The country has abundant resources and is already home to a strong solar industry. Spain is also hoping to reform its energy markets and transition further towards renewables, like much of Europe. Long-term contracts with renewable energy producers are providing predictable revenues for investors and more stable prices for consumers, and Spain is the leader in corporate Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in Europe – with Sonnedix being active in the market and having signed the first PPA with an Elelectro-intensive customer backed by a state guarantee in April 2023.
“The 136 MW from Qualitas Energy is a portfolio of regulated PV plants, built between 2008 and 2012. They are not new plants but they really help us to balance our portfolio. They have a good fit with our existing operating base in Spain, and I believe we are the largest solar PV producer in Spain at the moment, with more than 800 MW operational. We have a diversified footprint in the country, and this portfolio fits very nicely,” says Thiemann.
In April, Sonnedix unveiled its latest venture in Spain, a 50 MW solar PV plant – Los Frailes – in the southwest of the country. Covering 111 hectares, with 110,000 monocrystalline solar panels, and the ability to power 36,500 homes (avoiding 24,000 tons of CO2), Los Frailes was developed, built, and managed by Sonnedix, with ongoing operation and maintenance also handled by the company. “It is a symbol of our consolidation in the market as a leading renewable energy producer. We are very proud to be sharing and celebrating this milestone with so many partners, clients, and friends today,” said Director of Sonnedix España, Gerson González.
Active across Europe, in the UK, France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Portugal, there is no doubt that Sonnedix will continue to search for opportunities in this market. Thiemann describes aspirations, despite tough conditions, for impressive expansion.
“We are facing very volatile conditions globally, but especially in Europe. The energy crisis has introduced much volatility in power pricing.” he explains. “In that context, we still believe that pushing renewable energy forward is the way to go, especially when supported at EU level by the European Renewable Energy Plan which is dramatically increasing ambitions of the EU to deploy renewable energies – solar, wind, and storage. That is why we are investing heavily in Europe, in Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, the UK, and Portugal. We are doing that through conversion of our development pipeline, where we have seen big success with construction starting across multiple sites. In parallel, we keep acquiring operating assets.”
Important for Sonnedix going forward (and the wider renewables industry) is that the market now enjoys a favourable position when it comes to energy generation from an economic perspective. Long gone are the carefree days of Coal and gas burning as the cheapest generating methods, and the build of nuclear generating capacity is incomparably difficult to renewable (particularly solar) – not to speak of the long-term risks. Today, renewable energy is not only the ‘environmental’ alternative.
“We now have a sweet spot in the rollout of renewable energy,” smiles Thiemann. “Firstly, we have widespread political support now which is different from when we started. This is because of the awareness of climate change and the acceptance of the requirement for energy transition in the public. Secondly, we are now economically the smart choice alongside being green. When we started, most of our generation was subsidised but there is no longer a need for subsidy. We have an opportunity to rapidly troll out renewable energy and we are trying to do so as fast as possible.”
There are, of course, challenges. Primarily for Sonnedix is the volatility of power pricing and the lengthy permitting process which differs across borders alongside the well-documented challenges in global supply chains.
“The main bottle necks that we are challenged with are pricing volatility with regulatory issues, and also the ability to develop projects easier and quicker. That is a problem from a permitting perspective – being able to develop the land and real estate – and also being able to gain access to interconnection to existing grids. From our perspective, we have big plans, but we need the right economic and political environment, and we need to work on streamlining permitting and building out the electricity grids to drive the energy transition forward allowing the renewable energy industry to grow,” details Thiemann.
In this growth, the CEO sees Sonnedix as not only a lead innovator but also a long-term partner to both communities in which projects are situated as well as the various different stakeholders involved in the success. Whether it is governments, financial institutions, or hardware suppliers, or local people, partnerships are the foundations on which the company builds.
“We want to be there for 20, 30 or 40 years and so we participate in a number of ways. Through the development process, we strive to have a really close connection with the local community and understand needs and concerns. We make sure we identify the right mitigating actions if there are any required from an environmental perspective in terms of traffic and noise, right through to dust and dirt. We look to ensure our construction activities minimize disruption and provide local jobs. A large part of our mandate is around providing jobs for the local community for men and women. It’s not just any type of work, it’s work that brings skills and promotes diversity. This is the same during the long-term operation of the site - we must provide environmental and social benefits,” he says, highlighting the importance of partnerships.
Looking to the future, Sonnedix is confident about further growth, with the burning of coal in Europe to supplement energy systems that have been needy since ending supplies from Russia not sustainable. A rapid increase in the share of renewables used in final energy consumption is hoped to reach 45% before 2030, helping on the Net Zero journey, but also ditching Russia as a power player. According to SolarPower Europe research, the EU installed 41.4 GW of solar capacity in 2022 – a 47% increase on 2021. In the UK, 40% of electricity came from solar, wind, biomass, and hydro in 2022, according to Imperial College London. The appetite is there. Now, people must deliver the push.
“We are in a special place. We have political support and economic sense to drive the transition forward and accelerate growth. For me, the priorities are to enable that by building capabilities to drive it,” Thiemann reiterates. “We don’t want to continue the trajectory that we were but accelerate through hybridization and shifting our customer focus to really understand their needs. The portfolio that we build out must meet these needs and contain solar, wind, and storage. That is our journey for the next couple of years, building the portfolio and, ultimately, creating a team that thrive in an environment of high growth and complexity. It is one of the things that differentiates us. We have built a team over the past 10 years of 500 people globally that is highly capable. They develop, build, finance, contract, and operate these plants, and the team must be grown and upskilled to allow us to face the large challenges that we have.”
According to the IEA, the EU’s renewable goals, outlined in the REPowerEU plan, are achievable but the private sector has an undoubted part to play. Sonnedix is playing its part.
“We continue on our journey developing, building, and operating renewable energy projects,” Thiemann concludes.
Read the full issue on Energy Focus.