The rise of renewable installations: tech’s role in making them cost-effective and safe

By Shelley Copsey, CEO of FYLD

New revolutionary clean energy technologies exploded onto the market last year, with manufacturing investment into these game-changing innovations sky-rocketing to around USD 200 billion in 2023, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). This is a 70% increase in renewable tech investment since 2022, which means the construction of renewable infrastructure such as on and off shore wind turbines, and large-scale solar farms worldwide, continues at a rapid pace.

As developers and field workers take on these unfamiliar projects, typically on a mammoth scale, the risk of serious incidents and skyrocketing budgets grows. However, if embraced, technology can unlock considerable time and cost savings that can help to power a cleaner, greener future.

The world’s renewable energy revolution 

Carbon reduction, security of supply and rising energy costs have seen countries around the world attempt to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, which has led to a huge increase in investment in clean energy. In fact, the first half of 2023 alone saw a record US$358 billion global investment in renewables.

Net zero lobbying has proven adept at diverting fiscal expenditure to green projects, and politicians around the world have struggled to resist demands for more investment into clean energy projects in the wake of a global climate change movement. This means we can expect the construction of large renewable infrastructure to continue at scale, resulting in new frontiers in health and safety risk and as well as project efficiencies across work sites in a burgeoning industry.

And it really is growing. In Australia alone to meet the nation’s target of 82% national renewable electricity generation by 2030 set out by the Australian Energy Council, more than 40 wind turbines need to be built every month, as well as 22,000 solar panels erected each day.

Whilst in the UK, there are now almost 11,500 wind turbines, a mix of on and off shore. These large scale builds are making an impact: the share of wind power in the UK’s electricity mix in 2022 was up from 21.8% in 2021. Key projects such as the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea 2 off the Yorkshire coast in the North Sea which became fully operational in August 2022, have contributed to this rise in renewable power.

And today, renewables make up 21.5% of electricity generation in the U.S., with wind power contributing 10% of U.S. of that figure and it is set to continue to grow if reports are true. Record-breaking wind turbine installations in 2020 and 2021, primarily in the Central and Midwest regions, have increased U.S. wind energy generation by 30% to 135.1 GW.

In Asia, China installed roughly as much solar capacity as the rest of the world combined in 2022, then in 2023, the nation doubled new solar installations, increased new wind capacity by 66%, and almost quadrupled additions of energy storage.

Furthermore, the second largest solar farm in the world can be found in India, Bhadla, which boasts an impressive 2.7GW capacity. Projects like these have only been made possible because the Indian government has taken significant steps to accelerate renewables developments in recent years.

Large-scale installations, large-scale challenges

At COP28, world governments pledged to triple renewable energy generation capacity by 2030, and significantly reduce global dependence on fossil fuels.

Different countries have different net zero targets, including how they will construct new renewable infrastructure, but what they all have in common is that they are extremely ambitious. Not only is significant investment in large-scale renewable projects required, but the construction of these installations is required at a rapid pace in order for the targets to be achieved.

Recent headwinds including higher interest rates, supply chain delays for raw materials, labour shortages and complex planning regulations, have created barriers that impede the progress of these projects. And, one key challenge currently is the infancy of the renewable industry itself.

Whilst the oil and gas industry is just as complex, high-risk, and capital intensive, there is evidence that oil wells were being drilled in China as far back as 347 AD, with the first commercial oil well to follow in Trinidad in 1857, so the sector has been growing its technical expertise since the 18th century.

The renewables sector on the other hand is relatively new, and it already faces a critical skills shortage. According to PwC, around 200,000 people in the UK alone need to be trained in areas such as solar, wind, and green hydrogen to meet renewable energy targets.

Without a sound understanding of the risk that these large-scale developments pose through the knowledge of experienced, skilled workers, field teams are more vulnerable to safety incidents and the developers’ investments could become compromised.

Permitting problems

Another key challenge is navigating the often complex area of permitting in order to rapidly deploy clean energy infrastructure. Any delays on these sites will inevitably lead to set-backs in terms of budget overruns, and could delay nations being able to meet key clean energy targets. The skills shortage in the sector may play a part in creating a gap in knowledge when it comes to applying for the right permits at the right time.

According to GlobalData, the EU has four-times more wind capacity in the permitting stage than under construction. The data showed that Spain has nine times more capacity permitting in its wind projects than under construction, whilst Poland and Germany both have eight times more.

The International Energy Agency also reported that countries including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines find permitting a challenge when it comes to building and scaling renewable projects. The report from GlobalData also showed that 79% of U.S. wind pipeline is stuck in the permitting process, whilst it is slightly less at 74% in China and 64% in India.

An AI boost in the renewables race 

FYLD data has shown that many field workers, including construction in the renewables sector, report unnecessary down-time due to delays with permits.

Recently, our technology processed data from 500,000 worksites and the algorithms demonstrated that by having greater awareness of what permits are required, up to two hours of time per job can be recovered and turned into productive time. Given the highly complex nature of construction work on these renewables sites, the shortage of skilled workers and critical investment that has already been injected into the sector, this foresight could mean significant cost and efficiency gains.

Recognising this challenge, FYLD recently launched a pioneering smart workflow solution which provides field workers with greater clarity over the permits that may be required throughout the life of the project in advance of any issues arising, mitigating incidents that may stall project progress.

By using AI-driven alerts and training on mobile phones and tablets, field workers and project managers can stay ahead of any risk, in the hope that they can avoid a permitting backlog and site shutdowns so that they can progress their large-scale renewables projects on time.

Our proprietary technology also allows the issuing of the permits to be digitalised, removing the time-consuming process of manual issuing and eliminating the paper-work that comes with traditional approaches.

Whilst major reform of global energy infrastructure permitting systems is long-overdue and potentially in the pipeline in some jurisdictions, technology can play an important role now in streamlining the way that projects are planned for, whilst ensuring the necessary permissions are foreseen. In embracing a digital-first approach to project planning in the renewables sector, the ambitious clean energy targets we hear a lot  about may be closer than we first thought.