How severe climate events are affecting solar project returns

  • January 10, 2024
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  • Zoe Berkery, Chief Operating Officer

In 2023, we have witnessed a barrage of extreme weather events, from some of the longest and hottest consecutive days on the planet to rising ocean temperatures killing millennia-old coral reefs. We have also continued to see summer fires make impacts across the country like the Canadian fire that caused an East Coast shutdown. When events like this happen, as owners of solar assets, we must be aware of what happens to the renewable energy projects that rely on almost perfect conditions.  

The impacts of climate change are undeniable and demand urgent action. But it is also the spokes that turn the wheel. As more and more solar projects are developed and come online, long-term management in the face of our ever-changing environment will create successful returns. As we at CleanCapital face off against unpredictable weather, we have collected the expertise and know-how to keep solar assets resilient through strategy and effective Operations and Maintenance (O&M) partnerships, and technical oversight. 

Climate Hits, Power Woes

When solar and storage projects are at the center of these climate events, there is increased risk to their integrity and output. For example, during the summer of 2023, the Canadian wildfires caused city-wide shutdowns along the East Coast because of the smoke. The smoke didn’t only shut down cities, it also had an impact on the average energy production – according to the New York ISO, the wildfires reduced solar energy production by 1,466 MW during the June 6-7 time period. 1 MW can power approximately 200 homes according to SEIA, other resources put this figure much higher (800-1000 homes per EcoWatch). Therefore, this reduction in generation was impactful to the region. During this time the smoke resulted in an almost 10% decrease in production from our regional assets. However, by keeping a portfolio of solar assets in multiple markets and geographies, we were able to make up the difference in operating returns.  

On the U.S. territory Guam, we hold one of the largest solar assets, the Dandan site, operating since 2015. This solar farm supplies 6% of the island’s electricity generation capacity and renewable energy to Guam Power Authority (GPA). The site provides a reliable source of fixed-price clean energy to the surrounding community, helping to offset the impact of volatile fossil fuel prices on the island. Because this territory is in the western Pacific Ocean, severe weather like hurricanes and typhoons happen on average between 2 to 8 times in a given year. In May 2023, the island faced one of the strongest typhoons to date, Typhoon Mawar, bringing winds of over 140mph and causing significant damage across the island. During this event, our site saw 43% reduction in performance. Thankfully, we had deenergized the site to minimize damage and possible hazardous conditions that can result from a live site during a natural disaster. While the site did suffer some damage, the result could have been far worse without the adequate preparations made by our team.  

Vegetation management was often previously seen as a nice-to-have mainly for the purpose of avoiding unnecessary shading of the panels from overgrown grasses or weeds. Now it is viewed as a crucial component of site safety, particularly in the West where conditions can be incredibly dry, to help reduce the spread of wildfires. Dry, overgrown vegetation is the perfect fodder for wildfire and overgrowth near a solar facility can result in major losses. Ensuring vegetation management visits are scheduled proactively throughout the year can greatly reduce exposure to fire risk.  

Keeping solar assets resilient

As we consider an asset and the diligence that goes into market evaluation, we also evaluate the likelihood of severe climate events. Every region has its kryptonite with weather; The West Coast faces increasingly severe fire seasons, the South battling unprecedented heatwaves and hurricanes, and the East Coast with record-breaking snowfall (and most recently, wildfires). These regions all have something in common, they are prime areas for solar projects. So how do we keep returns on track during these, sometimes catastrophic, weather events? 

  • Keep a diversified solar portfolio. Areas hit by heatwaves and wildfires experienced diminished solar efficiency due to smoke particles, leading to slowed energy production. Having solar assets across different regions will ensure level returns. As one region may dip, another can continue its energy production. 
  • Strategically managing the lifecycle of an asset. Our asset management team tracks operations, equipment availability, and production at each site. By maintaining a healthy spare parts inventory, we can be better prepared for any needed repairs following an unforeseen extreme weather event. This reduces equipment downtime and keeps energy production at a high.  
  • Making sure it is a two-way partnership with those on the ground. O&M partnerships can make or break the success of an asset. With the right relationship, both teams will be able to recognize potential issues before they arise. Their focus on predictive maintenance, swift repairs, and community engagement ensures solar projects withstand extreme weather.  

As we face the daunting reality of global temperatures rising 1.5 degrees Celsius or more, climate change and weather-related events are only going to intensify. The solar and storage industry needs to accelerate its efforts and protect the progress made. At CleanCapital, our mission is to increase the investment into climate solutions and bring more renewable energy projects online. By acknowledging the challenges, investing in robust infrastructure, and fostering industry partnerships, we can secure a more sustainable energy future even in the face of escalating climate threats.