Image credit: SER-Soler

Image credit: SER-Soler

As it gradually tightens its global grip, the COVID-19 crisis is not being picky about the solar markets it disrupts. From heavyweights China and Germany to emerging stars such as the Philippines and the Netherlands, countries large and small are feeling the turmoil around PV supply chains.

The pandemic finds French solar at a particularly momentous time. The industry must achieve an astounding boom – doubling capacity between 2019 (9.43GW) and 2023 (18-21GW), and then again by 2028 (35.6-44.5GW) – but growth, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, has been slow if steady.

Can France get there even as the headwinds build? PV Tech put the question to Xavier Daval, chair of national PV body SER-SOLER. Recently interviewed, he charts the disruption seen so far by French PV players and urges the country to ensure green energy can bounce back post-pandemic.

PV Tech: How has the COVID-19 emergency impacted the French PV sector so far?

Xavier Daval: At the moment it’s as complicated as anywhere else, as you can imagine. Our solar industry is a long chain and companies are intertwined with one another. Some are still working, others have been forced to stop.

I recently had some guys on the phone as we held discussions with the [French Environment] Ministry and heard a few examples. For instance, all solar developers need to have documents prepared by notaries at some point or other and it is amazing to see these very traditional businesses are unable to work from home – without these documents you can’t move to the next stage.

Another example was architects, whose signature is needed by solar firms submitting applications for building permits. Architects typically use drawing equipment at the office but some cannot work the same way at home. There are also the engineers who must be able to reach fields to carry out wildlife biodiversity surveys. This is a very critical phase in the analysis as now is the moment when wildlife is picking up, yet surveys may have to wait one year as people can’t go out at the moment.

PV Tech: What has been the French government’s attitude when you voiced these concerns?

Xavier Daval: The Ministry has been very supportive and concerned. Two weeks ago we received a proposal from them regarding the solar tenders. We told them it was critical to maintain as much of the tenders as possible because the deadlines create a very positive tension with the sector at this time. All employees have already been dispatched home so it’s important to keep some sort of spirit

The next big solar tender in France, scheduled on 3 July 2020, had an initial volume of 1GW. We knew of course such a figure would be impossible in today’s conditions and yet there was a need to have enough volume to ensure fair bidding prices. We asked if we could maintain something for July rather than postpone everything until September and the Ministry accepted – we agreed maintaining one third of 1GW in July and the remainder in September.

PV Tech: German PV players have voiced concerns – and obtained a lifeline – over the penalties faced by auction-backed projects as COVID-19 drives delays. Do you share the worry?

Xavier Daval: Freezing any penalties within the scope of the tender was another of our requests for the government. Many projects will be facing delays that will not be the developer’s fault and our proposal was to apply deadline freezes covering the lockdown period, plus one year. The government agreed that reprieves will be granted. 

The reason is we understand that getting back to normal will take longer than the day itself when confinement ends. Say you need a specific sensor from a certain country to connect your plants to an electric substation – you won’t be getting any clearance until you can secure these very technical devices. We won’t fully recover just because inverters may be back from Germany and modules from China; other products from different countries will have to return too.

PV Tech: How do you think France can ensure solar’s post-pandemic comeback is as swift as possible? Are the country’s solar growth targets deliverable after the outbreak?

Xavier Daval: It’s hard to make predictions right now. I don’t have a crystal ball but what I can say as chair of the French solar association is if we want to protect the industrial ecosystem of the solar sector then we have to keep running anything that can be run for the longest time possible. We believe these activities must be preserved and had a very positive reply from the Ministry on this front.

We want to make sure France benefits from the drop in oil prices to highlight the bottlenecks that exist in our energy system. There’s the fact that government can sometimes take two months to answer a question, or the three to six months it takes to get a quote from a connecting or distribution company, when it is only one week in Germany.

That was the rule and we were used to it – it didn’t really matter when developments were ongoing but it could become unacceptable if we have to restart the market. With the support of the government, as well as a population who wants to go back to normal, we could have some proper leverage to implement simplification. We’re a very administrative country by nature but if we want to quickly come back on board, we will have to sacrifice some of this.

France's new solar auction dates

Solar segmentOld tender datesNew tender dates
Ground-mount solar3 July 20203 July 2020 (one-third of 1GW), 3 November 2020 (two-thirds)
Solar repowering of old nuclear site31 July 202030 September 2020
Rooftop solar6 July 20206 September 2020
Innovative solar3 April 20203 June 2020
Solar for non-interconnected zones12 June 202012 August 2020
Self-consumption18 May 202018 July 2020
Source: SER-SOLER

The prospects and challenges of solar's new era in France and the rest of Europe will take centre stage at Large Scale Solar Europe 2020 (Lisbon, on 30 June-1 July 2020).

This publication has also set up a tracker to map out how the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting solar supply chains worldwide. You can read the latest updates here.

If you have a COVID-19 statement to share or a story on how the pandemic is disrupting a solar business anywhere in the world, do get in touch at jrojo@solarmedia.co.uk or lstoker@solarmedia.co.uk.

Tags: covid-19, coronavirus, lss2020, largescale2020, europe, france, solar, solar pv, ser-soler, policy and regulation, lsdigital

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