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How the virus slowed the booming wind power business

Even as businesses around the world close this spring, EDF Renewable executives were hoping to complete the installation of 99 wind turbines in southern Nebraska before the year-end deadline. Then, at the beginning of April, the pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the company.

A manager in a the factory that built the giant cylinders on which the turbines are based had died of the coronavirus, shutting down the factory and delaying EDF’s work of five weeks. That and other setbacks – including construction workers at the Nebraska site who contracted the virus – hampered EDF’s efforts to complete the $ 374 million project by the end of the year. . A prolonged delay could increase costs, threatening the financial viability of the project.

The company’s struggles are emblematic of how the pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and jeopardized tens of billions of dollars in investment and millions of jobs, retail stores and oil companies and gas being among the hardest hit. But EDF’s challenges show how the pandemic has hit even booming industries such as renewable energies.

The American Wind Energy Association estimates that the pandemic could threaten a total of $ 35 billion in investment and about 35,000 jobs this year. Losses could increase if the coronavirus continues to disrupt the economy well into next year.

“Every part of the supply chain has been impacted by this,” said John Hensley, vice president of research and analysis for the wind association. “Of course, if we see significant delays, it can have significant economic consequences.”

Wind turbines provide over 7% of America’s electricity and are the second largest source of carbon-free energy after nuclear power plants. Nebraska derives about 20% of its electricity from wind power, and when completed, EDF’s project will have the capacity to meet the electricity needs of approximately 115,000 homes.

The wind energy sector was growing by around 10% per year before the pandemic. But industry officials are now worried that projects under construction will be postponed or canceled due to the pandemic. The industry had hoped Congress could provide some help for renewable energy, but it did not get much from the stimulus bills passed in the spring.

The industry received help from the Treasury Department, which in May gave wind power developers more time to complete construction in order to qualify for a federal tax credit. Companies must now complete the projects they launched in 2016 and 2017 within five years, up from four years previously. EDF started its project in 2016.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how everything is going to land,” said Benoit Rigal, vice-president of engineering and construction at EDF.

On March 13, EDF prepared the site to receive three dozen blades that harness the wind. These are some of the first components the company expected to arrive in the village of Milligan, Neb., Less than an hour southwest of Lincoln.

But three days before the expected arrival of the blades, Dwynne Igau, EDF’s planning and construction manager in charge of the project, received worrying news: one of his workers had fallen ill. Ms Igau quickly canceled the delivery and ordered the quarantine of around 30% of her crew.

Areas around Milligan have seen an early increase in coronavirus cases, in part due to infections at meat packing plants. Only a few hundred people live in the village, a railroad community incorporated in 1888 which is surrounded by rows of cornfields and is known as the “Hospitality Capital of Nebraska” because it offers services like a salon and spa.

According to EDF, at least three workers have tested positive for the virus this year. Several people who worked as contractors and equipment suppliers also fell ill.

“We didn’t really think it would spread so much and so quickly,” said Gilles Gaudreault, director of transportation and logistics who is also overseeing the project.

Normally, Ms. Igau would have been on the construction site to manage the work. But the pandemic had forced her to work from her home in a suburb of Austin, Texas, more than 800 miles away. Ms Igau has also had to deal with an outbreak closer to home: her daughter’s college roommate caught the coronavirus, forcing the family to travel back and forth with her daughter multiple times from Texas A&M University , about a two hour drive.

Ms. Igau had spent seven years leading the operations of the project but had never encountered anything like it. It was the first time she had lost access to her crew for days.

“There was so much uncertainty in the March-April period about what our deliveries would look like,” Ms. Igau said. “Do we have components within that time frame to start putting these components together?”

The blades that were delayed in mid-March were en route from China and sat for days in a yard in central Nebraska. But this delay was not the last of Ms Igau’s problems.

Another set of blades, from India, were delayed when the government shut down a factory due to a coronavirus outbreak. The plant eventually reopened, but the shutdown had a lasting impact, and the last seven of those blades just arrived at a port in Houston last week.

Ms. Igau and EDF had to make many other changes on the site which also slowed down the work. Teams of four or five workers could no longer cram into a van to drive around a construction site. Each worker should drive alone. Some inspections that were typically done by teams of workers would now require a drone to reduce the need for people to be close to each other.

A large weekly meeting on Wednesday, which previously involved some 300 people standing side by side in a parking lot, has been dropped. Instead, managers encountered groups of 10 workers who had to stay at least six feet apart. EDF has also eliminated the daily meetings at 8 am in a manager’s trailer. Everyone was required to wear masks in addition to gloves. And EDF has started to carry out regular temperature checks.

As the work teams adapted to these changes, EDF was faced with another challenge: heavy rains which made it difficult for delivery men and construction workers to travel.

“If you’re trying to get components, you really have to have peak roads,” Ms. Igau said. “We had difficult conditions and we took a number of people out.”

In the first week of April, EDF learned from the Mexico-based cylinder manufacturer that a logistics manager had died from the coronavirus.

“This whole team was quarantined for two weeks,” Ms. Igau said, adding that for a while she couldn’t even get the contractor to confirm when “they would be able to return to work. “.

She spent days researching other suppliers and worrying that the setback would mean the project wouldn’t be completed by the end of the year. But few companies make the cylinders, which must be strong enough to support heavy turbines and withstand high winds. There was little capacity available and even though she had found another factory there was no guarantee she could have arranged transport as shipping routes had also been disrupted by the pandemic.

“How will we end up by the end of the year?” Ms. Igau remembers wondering. Another concern: what should she do with the construction workers if there were no towers to erect?

Even once the cylinder plant was back up and running, new problems arose. The bottles had to be sent by rail. But the delay meant there was no room on a train heading in the right direction, so they would now have to be trucked out.

The cylinders, which are typically as tall as a five-story building, require a special class of trucks that can only be used by drivers with special training and permits. Drivers are typically over 50, which makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. In addition, most of the drivers and their trailers were already busy transporting other massive cargo.

But it wasn’t just the cylinders that Ms. Igau had to worry about. She was also having trouble securing the blades of her turbines.

Supplies of balsa wood, a major component of wind turbine blades, have been scarce this spring as around 95% of it comes from Ecuador, which has been overwhelmed by the pandemic. At one point, so many people were dying there that bodies wrapped in plastic bags were lying in the streets.

At just over two months of the year, the first five turbines started running last week, giving EDF hope of meeting its deadline. But the number of coronavirus cases is on the rise across the country and the flu season is beginning, leaving leaders uncertain.

“Something could happen on site every day, which means our entire team could go into quarantine,” Ms. Igau said. “I don’t know how we’ll end up by the end of the year.”