Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry

Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry
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A worker sets up solar panels on the roof of a home in Colmenar Viejo, Spain. Some Spanish renewable energy firms are offering to install panels for free. (Reuters)
Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry
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A housing estate with solar panels in Duesseldorf, Germany. European firms are offering innovative finance plans to entice wary clients amid rising job insecurity. (AFP)
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Updated 10 July 2020

Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry

Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry
  • Executives in US and Europe rely on tech, finance plans in battle for survival

LOS ANGELES: The booming rooftop solar panel industry nosedived overnight when the coronavirus forced homeowners to rein in spending and keep their distance from would-be installers.

Now, in their struggle to survive, companies on both sides of the Atlantic are turning to online marketing rather than knocking on doors, using drones to inspect roofs, arranging digital permits and coming up with attractive new financing plans, according to interviews with 12 executives.

At stake is the future of a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy: solar power was the second-fastest growing renewable source after wind in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

And rooftop installations, which generate electricity used by homes or businesses rather than feeding into the grid, made up more than 40 percent of the market before COVID-19 struck.

Energy research firm Wood Mackenzie has slashed its rooftop solar installation forecasts for Europe and the US by a whopping 30 percent this year, while lifting its forecast by 3 percent in Asia, where China provides strong government support.

Joana Palau, 42, a council worker on the Spanish island of Ibiza, was one of the few in her neighborhood who pressed ahead with a plan to install 12 solar panels on her farmhouse in June: “If I had not been working and did not have the stability of a salary every month, I definitely wouldn’t have done it.”




A housing estate with solar panels in Duesseldorf, Germany. European firms are offering innovative finance plans to entice wary clients amid rising job insecurity. (AFP)

By contrast, large-scale solar installations that power the grid have fared relatively well. Wood Mackenzie trimmed its forecast by less than 10 percent for Europe and barely touched its US outlook as rock-bottom prices, subsidies and government mandates helped insulate larger projects from the pandemic. In the US, the third biggest rooftop solar market after China and Japan, about 80 percent of the 100,000 job losses in the solar sector so far have been at rooftop installers, the Solar Energy Industries Association said.

Many of the staff who were not laid off, however, began to focus on one of the industry’s most persistent challenges: How to cut the cost of identifying homeowners with suitable roofs, and then persuading them to buy panels, executives said.

Quickly, companies made sales appointments virtual.

Leading US installers SunPower Corp., Vivint Solar Inc. and Sunrun Inc. said that reassured potential clients worried about the virus. It also cut the cost of acquiring customers, which Wood Mackenzie puts at nearly $4,000, or 22 percent of the average $18,000 cost of a US system.

Normally reliant on door-to-door visits, an effective but expensive sales tactic, Vivint trained hundreds of salespeople to canvass by phone as its sales slumped 60 percent following state lockdowns, CEO David Bywater said.

By early May, sales were down only 30 percent. “It was a radical shift,” said Bywater, adding that it had hastened Vivint’s plan to diversify sales strategies and cut costs: “I hope we never lose that and we accelerate that.”

In fact, the strategy was so successful that larger rival Sunrun announced on July 7 that it had agreed to buy Vivint in an all-stock deal valued at $3.2 billion, saving $90 million a year and creating a solar player with half a million customers.

Sunrun bought Vivint because of its focus on direct selling, a model Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich said had become even more durable during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Both companies are delivering above where we expected.”

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Solar panel firms go digital as lockdowns hit sales.
  • New sales strategies cut costs as firms battle to survive.
  • Solar power seen as key driver in climate change fight.

Rival SunPower has also seen a massive shift to digital sales, with about three-quarters of consultations now happening via video chat, up from a 10th previously.

CEO Tom Werner said he expected half of its sales would be digital from now on. He said it was harder to close deals in virtual chats but that was offset by cutting out travel time between appointments.

“Ideally, you have the day when solar is like Amazon, so you can buy and be fulfilled in a very efficient process,” he said.

Sunrun, meanwhile, had to pull its salespeople out of stores such as Costco and Home Depot during lockdowns, outlets that had been bringing in nearly a third of its sales. Within two weeks, Sunrun had moved its field sales team online and launched a promotion offering six months of home solar power for $6. While initial online commitments were lower, the percentage of customers following through was higher.

Sunrun said innovations like virtual sales and automating permits to avoid physical processing by authorities will trim about $2,000 off the cost of an array over the next year or so.

EmPower Solar, a rooftop installer based in Long Island, spent New York’s lockdown on “game-changing initiatives” such as digitising sales and paperwork, and using satellite imagery and drones to inspect roofs, said CEO David Schieren.

However, he said that it was harder to build rapport with customers without face-to-face contact.

In Europe, rooftop solar firms developed more enticing finance plans as the pandemic made clients wary about spending.

SotySolar in Gijon in northern Spain accelerated the roll-out of a “Netflix-style” subscription model. It installs panels and charges a monthly fee though homeowners can buy them or end their contract when they like, said co-founder Daniel Fernandez.

“We have been thinking about doing this for a while, but we brought it forward because of this situation,” he said, adding that he expected to triple installations with the offer.

In Barcelona, renewable energy utility Holaluz has accelerated an initiative to install panels free for people with available roof space — and use them to generate power for all its customers. It aims to extend the plan to apartment blocks and commercial buildings.

Holaluz expects to boost clients to one million and carry out 50,000 rooftop solar installations by 2023. It estimates fewer than 10,000 Spanish homes currently have panels.

“This is the rooftop revolution,” said co-founder Carlota Pi. “We have spent so much time at home, we have become much more conscious of the value you can create by transforming your roof into a source of energy generation.”


OPEC should leave oil market in hands of the Saudis – Mizuho

OPEC should leave oil market in hands of the Saudis – Mizuho
Updated 23 July 2021

OPEC should leave oil market in hands of the Saudis – Mizuho

OPEC should leave oil market in hands of the Saudis – Mizuho
  • Saudi Arabia has managed production effectively during COVID era
  • Risks remain as COVID resurgence could hurt demand

RIYADH: OPEC and the entire energy industry should thank Saudi Arabia for helping oil prices recover from negative territory last year, and the market would be best left to the Kingdom to manage, according to a senior investment banking energy commentator.

“They’ve done a magnificent job of managing their production program in the COVID era,” Robert Yawger, executive director of Energy Futures at Mizuho Securities said in an interview on Bloomberg Television on Thursday.

Crude oil futures fell below zero for the first time in history on April 20 last year as demand evaporated amid widespread lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That was an “unprecedented event” and “left a terrible scar on the industry,” said Yawger. “It rallied back under the management of the Saudis. The rest of OPEC has a lot to thank them for. Anyone that has anything to do with energy has a lot to thank them for, for that matter.”

WTI crude, the US benchmark, reached a six-year high of $76.98 on July 5 as OPEC+ failed to find agreement on output quotas, but has edged lower since then as the UAE and Saudi Arabia hammered out a compromise. The group will raise output by 400,000 barrels a month from August for 14 months.

While discipline on production has helped bring prices back, the market is at risk if renewed lockdowns hurt demand, said Yawger.

“I understand that everyone wants to get as many barrels on the market as possible, but you just can’t do that,” he said. “You cannot flood the market. It’s a very fragile state right now.”

“In my opinion, it’s best to let the Saudis manage it; they’ve done an incredible job. As long as they don’t flood the market themselves,” he said.

“Everybody remembers negative prices. That was the result of the price war last year. They all came to the assumption that it’s better to keep the barrels off the market and let the Saudis take charge and manage the situation than let prices slide in that direction again. Nobody can sustain that kind of slide for very long.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to see that $76.98 number again. That may be a challenge.”

US COVID-19 cases have climbed in recent weeks, reaching almost 64,000 yesterday compared with below 10,000 a day at the beginning of the month. However, that’s down from the peak in January of more than 250,000 new cases per day.

“If we have a COVID flare up that’s a third of what it was last fall, we have a serious problem on our hands and demand would not be that supersized as a result,” said Yawger. “If everybody was vaccinated we would not even be having this conversation. But because we’re headed into the winter with a big part of the population that’s not vaccinated, it has the potential to be a big problem for crude oil demand.”


New Russian war plane has Mideast orders in sights

New Russian war plane has Mideast orders in sights
Updated 23 July 2021

New Russian war plane has Mideast orders in sights

New Russian war plane has Mideast orders in sights
  • Plane has combat radius of 1,500 km and shortened takeoff and landing
  • Russia expects 300 orders for the plane over the next 15 years

DUBAI: Mideast governments could figure among customers for Russia’s new Sukhoi stealth fighter jet, a top Rostec executive told Arab News.
Known popularly as “The Checkmate,” the aircraft was inspected by President Vladimir Putin ahead of Moscow’s biennial airshow on Tuesday.
Designed to compete with the US F-15 fighter jet, few details had previously been made public about the plane made by Rostec, Russia’s defense industry manufacturing conglomerate and United Aircraft Corporation (UAC).
Victor Kladov, Rostec director for international cooperation and regional policy, told Arab News the aircraft had high export potential.
“This included singling out countries of the Middle East among potential customers,” he said.
Earlier, UAC General Director Yury Slyusar told Russian TV the plane had a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers and shortened takeoff and landing.
He expects as many as 300 orders for the plane over the next 15 years, mainly from the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
“Market appetite for advanced aircraft such as “the Checkmate” is strong in the Middle East, particularly if workshare and investment opportunities can help to satisfy local offset and industrialization policies,” said Charles Forrester, a regional lead analyst at Janes, a defense intelligence provider. “The desire to have sovereign control over advanced capabilities is a key part of this, particularly given the challenge of supply chain security in the face of export controls from foreign partners.”
The plane is expected to cost between $25 million and $30 million according to Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov.
Russia has invested heavily in its defense sector in recent years and has targeted exports to the Gulf states where it has been highly visible in regional arms fairs.
However strong US ties to the region have sometimes hampered its marketing push in the Arab world — with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) deterring potential clients.
“From an operational perspective, a number of militaries in the region are undertaking the process of refreshing their aircraft fleets that were acquired in the 1990s and 2000s, in order to deploy new capabilities, improve interoperability, and reduce maintenance costs. For some countries, such as Qatar and Egypt, this has involved significant increases in fleet sizes and capabilities. Changing threat dynamics, such as new anti-aircraft missile technology, have also meant that new capabilities are required to maintain an edge over their potential adversaries,” added Forrester.


Bitcoin set for weekly gain after Musk helps recovery above $30,000

Bitcoin set for weekly gain after Musk helps recovery above $30,000
Updated 23 July 2021

Bitcoin set for weekly gain after Musk helps recovery above $30,000

Bitcoin set for weekly gain after Musk helps recovery above $30,000
  • Bitcoin fell below $30,000 on July 20
  • Musk said he and his companies own crypto assets

RIYADH: Cryptocurrencies rose on Friday, with bitcoin headed for a weekly gain following a volatile period that saw it dip below $30,000 for the first time in a month.

Bitcoin, the most traded cryptocurrency, was 1.1 percent higher at $32,419.46 at 12:36 a.m. Riyadh time, according to Coindesk desk data. Ether, the second most traded crypto asset, rose 3.7 percent to $2,056.70.

Bitcoin fell as low as $29,504.96 on July 20 before comments from Elon Musk at the B Word conference the follow day helped stir bullish sentiment. Both Tesla and SpaceX hold bitcoin on their balance sheet, and he personally owns bitcoin, ether and dogecoin, he said.

His comments helped boost prices across the crypto complex, with ether breaking above $2,000 for the first time since July 14.

Crypto traders have experienced a “roller coaster ride,” Lukas Conrad, chief product officer at Bitpanda told Coindesk. “Even though pressure from sellers might be diminishing, buyers won’t turn things around until resistance is broken.”

Core Scientific Holding Co. said on Wednesday it would go public through a merger with a blank-check company backed by BlackRock Inc, in a deal that values the cryptocurrency miner at $4.3 billion.

The deal with Power & Digital Infrastructure Acquisition Corp will fetch $300 million in cash proceeds, but the companies did not disclose a private investment in public equity (PIPE) round that typically accompanies blank-check mergers.

Core Scientific said it had mined 928 bitcoins in the second quarter and forecast revenues of $493 million and $1.1 billion for fiscal 2021 and 2022, respectively.

The company said it was 100 percent net carbon neutral and aims to remain so as it grows. Bitcoin is virtual but mining the asset consumes a lot of energy as it is created using high-powered computers around the globe.

A survey conducted by the investment bank Goldman Sachs found that 45 percent of family offices are interested in investing in cryptocurrencies, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.

Another 15 percent, over 150, said they have already invested in cryptocurrency. And they see the crypto industry as a hedge against higher inflation, prolonged low rates and other macroeconomic developments following a year of unprecedented global monetary and fiscal stimulus.

FTX Trading Ltd said on Tuesday its valuation had risen to $18 billion after a $900 million funding round that included SoftBank Group Corp and was one of the biggest fundraises for a crypto company.

The round saw participation from more than 60 investors, including venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, private equity giant Thoma Bravo, Daniel Loeb's Third Point, the Paul Tudor Jones family and British hedge fund manager Alan Howard.

JPMorgan Chase & Co will allow all of its wealth management clients access to cryptocurrency funds, Business Insider reported on Thursday, citing sources.

The bank told its financial advisers in a memo earlier this week to take buy and sell orders from its wealth management clients for five cryptocurrency products effective July 19, the report said.

Four of such products are from Grayscale Investments and one from Osprey Funds, according to the report. JPMorgan declined to comment on the report.


Egypt raises domestic fuel prices 7% in quarterly pricing review

Egypt raises domestic fuel prices 7% in quarterly pricing review
Updated 23 July 2021

Egypt raises domestic fuel prices 7% in quarterly pricing review

Egypt raises domestic fuel prices 7% in quarterly pricing review
  • Prices of all three grades raised by 0.50 Egyptian pounds each
  • Equates to about 7 percent price increase

CAIRO: Egypt has raised domestic fuel prices in a quarterly review that links energy prices to international markets, the petroleum ministry said on Friday.

The prices of 80-octane, 92-octane and 95-octane petrol were raised 0.50 Egyptian pounds each, to 6.75 Egyptian pounds ($0.43) per liter, 8 EGP/liter and 9 EGP/liter respectively, effective from 9:00 a.m. local time (7:00 a.m. GMT) on Friday, the ministry statement said.

The petroleum products price-setting committee decided to increase the prices following extreme fluctuations in global oil prices, the COVID-19 pandemic and global oil output cuts, it added.

The committee also takes into account the exchange rate.

In April, the committee raised domestic fuel prices for the first time since it was formed in October 2019 following the completion of subsidy reforms.

Prices were raised in July 2019 when Egypt, a net oil importer, finished phasing out subsides on fuel products as part of a reform program backed by the International Monetary Fund. Prices had been stable over the last year after being lowered in April 2020 and October 2019.


Electric vehicles double market share in Europe in the second quarter

Electric vehicles double market share in Europe in the second quarter
Updated 23 July 2021

Electric vehicles double market share in Europe in the second quarter

Electric vehicles double market share in Europe in the second quarter
  • All-electric vehicles accounted for 7.5 percent of new car sales in Europe
  • Sales of battery electric vehicles more than tripled across Europe to 210,298 cars

PARIS: Electric vehicles more than doubled their share of new car sales in Europe in the second quarter, with hybrids also making gains, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) said Friday.
All-electric vehicles accounted for 7.5 percent of new car sales in Europe in the three months from April through June, against 3.5 percent during that period last year.
In absolute terms, sales of battery electric vehicles more than tripled across Europe to reach 210,298 cars.
The ACEA said there were substantial gains in the region’s top four markets, led by sales more than quadrupling in Spain and Germany.
“Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) had an even more impressive second quarter of 2021, with registrations jumping by 255.8 percent to 235,730 units,” said the ACEA.
Sales of hybrids also more than tripled to 541,162 vehicles, remaining the largest category of alternatively-powered cars.
Meanwhile, registrations of new petrol and diesel vehicles increased given the low number of vehicles sold in the second quarter last year, when many European countries had severe restrictions on businesses due to the pandemic.
But in terms of market share, both petrol and diesel saw huge drops.
Diesel saw its market share plunge to 20.4 percent from 29.4 percent.
Petrol had a bigger contraction, to 41.8 percent from 51.9 percent.
Automakers are stepping up their plans to shift to all-electric production.
Yesterday, Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler said it plans to invest more than 40 billion euros ($47 billion) by 2030 to be ready to take on Tesla in an all-electric car market, but warned the shift in technology would lead to job cuts.

Outlining its strategy for an electric future, the inventor of the modern motor car said on Thursday it would, with partners, build eight battery plants as it ramps up electric vehicle (EV) production.

From 2025, all new vehicle platforms will only make EVs, the German luxury automaker added.

“We really want to go for it ... and be dominantly, if not all electric, by the end of the decade,” Chief Executive Ola Källenius told Reuters, adding that spending on traditional combustion-engine technology would be “close to zero” by 2025.

However, Daimler — to be renamed Mercedes-Benz as part of plans to spin off its trucks division later this year — stopped short of giving a hard deadline for ending sales of fossil-fuel cars.

Some carmakers like Geely-owned Volvo Cars have committed to going all electric by 2030, while General Motors Co. (GM.N) says it aspires to be fully electric by 2035, as they all try to close the gap to industry leader Tesla.