Collaborations, challenges and the future
A leader in the field of solar power sheds light on the sector, and offers his vision for the future of energy.
Alain Desvigne has been innovating in water and low-carbon energy infrastructure for more than two decades. Today, he is the co-founder and CEO of Amarenco, an international company that finances, builds and operates solar projects. To date, it has delivered more than 2,000 projects in Ireland, Spain, Asia and the Middle East.
Following a successful career in water and green energy, Alain Desvigne and three others established Amarenco, a leading solar power producer, in 2013. Now with offices in 10 countries – ranging from Spain and Singapore to Taiwan, and territories including Reunion Island – Amarenco employs 145 people and is the largest renewable energy provider in the Irish market.
“During my career, I met a number of people in different scenarios who had a range of backgrounds, and we realised that we had the same vision, which was that solar was going to become the most prominent source of energy,” Desvigne says. “Together we created Amarenco, with the goal to deploy solar around the world. We saw and believed in its potential.”
Solar has indeed prospered in recent years. In the past decade alone, it’s experienced an average annual growth rate of 42% in the US. As a result, there are more than 100 gigawatts of solar capacity installed nationwide – enough to power 18.6 million homes. And in 2019, the solar industry generated more than USD25bn of private investment in the American economy.
Amarenco has the ability to finance, create and operate solar rooftops, carports and greenhouses, as well as ground-mounted and floating farms. The company’s work involves collaboration with and support for a wide range of stakeholders, from small-scale farmers through to global corporates – the needs of which, clearly, differ greatly.
“When we work with farmers – and these could be market gardeners or fruitiers – it tends to be helping them with crop protection or diversification,” says Desvigne. “They might need to protect crops against climatic events such as hail or intensive wind. Perhaps they are guarding against diseases. Or maybe there’s a desire to produce more organic food without using pesticides and fertilisers. We work with them to define their core needs, and then design an infrastructure accordingly.”
The next step, Desvigne explains, is the commercial discussion around the split of the cost. Location plays a big part in these conversations. “If you’re based in the south of France or in Iberia, the amount of electricity you can sell is sufficient to cover maybe 90% or 100% of infrastructure. But if you are in northern Europe, where the price of electricity is high and the sun doesn’t shine as it does in southern Europe, then you will have to discuss, maybe, 50% being subsidised by PV [photovoltaics, the direct conversion of light into electric power] thanks to the sale of electricity, meaning you’ll have to contribute the other 50%.”
Many large corporations are now considering a switch to solar. “Corporates have two fundamental needs – the first of which is decarbonisation of the supply chain,” says Desvigne. “Three to five years ago, most of the world’s largest companies started to make pledges around being carbon neutral by 2030, or perhaps even being a carbon sink by 2040. These statements then had to be followed up with actions. And one way to do this is to decarbonise energy consumption. This is our field – by solarising the electricity we decarbonise their footprint.
“The bigger the industry and the more the company is exposed to the public, the more they want to decarbonise. But then you have B2B companies that perhaps aren’t as big or aren’t listed, so they are under less pressure. Their mindset is economics first. But it’s a win-win because with solar they maximise their energy bill reduction and they can decarbonise.”
Regardless of the sector, one of the biggest challenges that Amarenco faces in the process of getting projects off the ground is what Desvigne refers to as a ‘governance bottleneck’. How does the company counter this?
“This is where you have to be local and global,” says Desvigne. “For instance, we are now in Thailand with a large soft drink manufacturer, but if we didn’t have the buy-in of the local guys and the factory, there’s no way it would have happened. They need to know: are you an accredited supplier? Are you on the whitelist?
“Then, you have to be able to go to the global headquarters – our corporate executive team has to be able to talk to their corporate executive team. That mix of global and local is crucial.”
How do these alliances come about in the first place? Who approaches whom? “Large, sophisticated farming cooperatives tend to be very well organised,” says Desvigne. “They have a lot of people and resources who can look into the big market players. And if you have a good reputation, like we do, then you get connected to them directly.
“The smaller farmers, however, are independent and as such you need to chase them. We have what we call brokers. They tend to have connections to the farmers, probably because they are already selling to them. They’ll talk to the farmers and talk to us, and we’ll start a discussion from there. This applies to corporates too. The larger ones come to us with their carbon agenda, but we tend to rely on brokers for the smaller B2B companies.”
For Amarenco, the focus is on regeneration above sustainability. "I see sustainability as being more defensive – doing less bad things. But being regenerative is working with nature, not in a way that is separate or removed from it. I think this combination of reliability coupled with a greater ecological impact has helped build the brand. This mindset is also the reason I have been practising heartfulness meditation for more than 25 years, as well as coordinating the yoga outreach activities of the Heartfulness NGO in Western Europe and North Africa.”
What does the future of this industry look like? According to Desvigne, the next big feat will be truly conquering the storage of solar. “Solar is currently still an intermittent form of energy – we produce it from the morning to the evening, but not at night. Storage is the key enabler to make solar completely ubiquitous.
“Solar is going to be the number one form of energy globally, but only when storage is price competitive. To store six hours of energy today is quite expensive, but the transition to electric vehicles will help this. The more electric vehicles we have, the more batteries are being produced, which is where solar is held, and this will drive down costs.
“Hydrogen is another energy storage solution, and if it’s solarised it’s green hydrogen. This is the perfect solution to replace oil worldwide. We’re currently heading towards an electric-based economy, that’s the first wave, but in the next 20 years I see us moving to a hydrogen-based one. We actually have two green hydrogen projects under development – one in France and one in Ireland. Projects like these are the future.”
Alain Desvigne has also completed an MBA from INSEAD in Singapore.
2000: Graduates from the French water engineering school ENGEES
2000: Joins a portfolio company of Engie as a technical & commercial manager
2003: Appointed business unit manager & board member of the portfolio company
2007: Joins the chairman’s office of Samsung in Korea
2013: Co-founds Amarenco in Ireland