ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Philip Sheridan, Sterling & Wilson Solar Australia CEO

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Sterling & Wilson is one of the world’s leading EPC players, and it’s expanding its presence in Australia. We get to know its Australia CEO Philip Sheridan in this online exclusive.

Can you tell us a little bit about your career background before Sterling & Wilson Solar?

I have always had a love and fascination for large construction projects, particularly in the power and utilities sectors. Construction and engineering is challenging work. Procurement and engineering aside, there are very real human elements in managing construction projects – in mobilising, training, motivating and ensuring the safety of a large workforce in an environment that changes every day. While I have a civil engineering background, it is the people element that inspires me to do what I do.

Before joining Sterling & Wilson Solar, I was lucky enough to work for some of the country’s largest EPCs, overseeing the development of large-scale projects across transport, utilities, power generation and the petrochemical sector. However, I quickly found my way into renewable energy – and I have never looked back! Working in solar and for an EPC combines two of my greatest passions, in being able to execute large scale builds in an industry that is not just important for Australia’s economic future, but also for the world in decarbonising the globe.

What does being the Australia CEO entail?

You have only to pick up a newspaper to know that the renewable energy sector in Australia is booming. New renewable energy sources are coming online all the time, and investors are flocking to Australia for a chance to build the next biggest solar farm.

My role is to work with investors to turn that vision into reality – to turn the concept into a well-engineered, working solar farm, providing power to Australia. This is actually quite tricky work and my typical day has me reviewing project responsibilities, overseeing the supply chain, continually reviewing our workplace health and safety and risk plans and generally motivating all of our stakeholders to do the best job they can every day.

We know Sterling & Wilson Solar was involved with Wellington Solar Farm – what other big projects are underway in Australia/on the radar?

We have four other large projects in Australia, all in Queensland with the exception of a project just southeast of Port Augusta in South Australia. Together, these projects have an aggregate capacity of 912 MWp.

What innovations in solar are making it more accessible and affordable?

Batteries are booming. Since their entry into the market, the utilities industry has been investing heavily in batteries as an energy storage solution for renewable power.

Today, not only are batteries becoming cheaper, but they’re also proving effective in reducing power costs for consumers. Moreover, they’re also helping to improve the stability of our grid by metering out power more consistently throughout a day. It’s certainly not a stretch to say that we’ll be seeing further uptake of batteries over the coming years in new renewable energy projects.

Of course, the efficiency of solar panels has also improved markedly since they first entered the market. Today, they’re incredibly efficient at capturing energy and converting it into electricity; so much so that they pay for themselves rather quickly over time, making them quite a sound investment.

And what technologies are on the horizon? (Solar tech and maintenance)

Solar is an exciting space. Every year, we’re seeing new innovations break into the market that are not just helping improve the efficiency of solar panels, but also helping us use them in new ways.

Floating solar farms around the world will continue to grow due to the advantages of not using valuable land and lower real estate and installation costs as compared to land-based PV panels. In addition, power production from floating panels is slighter greater than land-based panels due to the cooling effects of the water.

Of course, we’re watching with excitement the research into “anti-solar panels”, which could potentially allow us to produce solar power at night. The research is still in the early phases, but it’s an innovation we’ll be watching closely.

How do you think the pandemic has impacted the Australian solar industry?

The pandemic undoubtedly threw a spanner in the works for EPCs, particularly in relation to the supply chains we rely on. While this wasn’t unique to our industry, the pandemic caused massive delays in shipping cargo, as vessels were delayed and even cancelled altogether.

From India, about 80 per cent of shipments destined for Australia move through Singapore. At one point, Singapore had approximately two million containers waiting to be despatched to Australia, with little certainty as to precisely when those containers would be shipped.

This not only caused delays in projects, but also increased project costs. The cost of shipping also rose dramatically throughout the pandemic, by as much as three times during some periods.

What barriers do you see in the Australian energy market that are hindering the uptake of renewables?

One of the greatest challenges that remains for the renewable energy sector is the security of the grid. We have one of the world’s longest and thinnest grids, which is prone to congestion.

While it is important for the security of our current grid, obtaining connection approval is tough. Without a connection, investors will not be able to make a return on their investment, and with growing anxiety and uncertainty in this area we are seeing investors increasingly exercising caution before backing plans for new renewable energy developments. In short, it’s having a cooling effect on investment.

Infrastructure aside, we know we need to do more in training and upskilling the Australian workforce to work on accelerating number of solar projects across the country. We want projects to be driven by locals, so we need to ensure they are well trained and capable to take on new solar projects in their area.

Any construction project is only as good as the hundreds of people who drive it, from the project managers and the engineers to the people on the ground everyday installing solar modules.

How do we overcome them?

We are seeing a growing conversation now on modernising the grid such that it can handle the growing number of solar farms coming online. We have seen state and territory governments move ahead with Renewable Energy Zones, and there are currently important conversations beings had by the Energy Security Board and others on how to modernise the grid and improve the ability of renewable sources to connect.

There is no doubt the grid requires modernisation and that this will require significant investment by Australian governments. However, there is also a significant opportunity for Australia in doing so, not least in helping to decarbonise the planet but also in stimulating greater investment in solar projects and providing green energy jobs to the people in our regions.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Australia is a promising market with significant amount of renewable energy resources. We have access to year-round sunshine and the opportunity to harness it – as part of an energy mix – to power our homes and industry is immense.

While the market has matured, there are few challenges now and, on the horizon. However, I think we are on the right track – we have the smarts, the capability, the workforce and the technology, all we need is the right policy settings to boost investment and continue to encourage the adoption of solar resources in Australia.

Related article: 5 Minutes With: Vikas Bansal, Sterling & Wilson Solar