Obstacles galore in the solar race

The figure is the pride of Simonetta Sommaruga: 200,000 solar panels were installed in Switzerland in February. The federal councilor responsible for the Ministry of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications announced new tax measures for structures with photovoltaic installations. Installations in the context of renovations are already deductible.

Time is running out: according to Parliament’s wishes, Switzerland must aim for CO2 neutrality by 2050. Buildings, however, generate a large part of greenhouse gas emissions (60% in the canton of Geneva). Elected officials therefore focus on real estate to clear the atmosphere and achieve the stated goals.

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The impact of the war in Ukraine

In Geneva, the Council of State has just presented a tool to force owners to renovate their properties to make them less energy-intensive. The maximum heat expenditure index, which they have to calculate, is no longer set at 800 but at 450. This lowered threshold will mean that almost 60% of the objects (individual villa, administrative building, rental property) will fall out of the nails legally defined , against 3% today. The race for less energy-consuming solutions has begun.

The war in Ukraine accentuates the phenomenon. It has multiplied energy costs to such an extent that “solar is now seen as a good solution to secure the supply price” by both industrialists and individuals, notes Lionel Perret, director of renewable energy at Planair, an energy and environmental consultancy. †

This enthusiasm will collide with a reality that construction professionals are already experiencing: a serious double shortage. We know the one who hits the material. The demand shock at the end of the global covid pandemic has particularly stalled the global market for semiconductors, these components necessary for the manufacture of all electronic devices. It does not matter that China, which has been severely hampered for two years, produces almost 90% of the solar panels.

A Swiss tare

Switzerland is also affected by another blemish: lack of manpower. The needs of the energy sector can be estimated at 300,000 people. “It is dramatic, confirms Stéphane Genoud, professor of energy management at the Institut Entrepreneuriat & Management of HES-SO Wallis Wallis. We’ve been shouting it for years to no avail. The situation is not worthy of a responsible country. It’s like for the nurses, we’re going to steal them from our neighbors. It is clear that this lack will slow down the energy transition in Switzerland.”

There is currently no training that combines all the skills needed to install photovoltaic panels (roofers, electricians, metal workers). A sector, under the auspices of Swisssolar, the association of solar professionals, is in full swing. “But the first diplomas will only be awarded in a few years’ time,” regrets Stéphane Genoud.

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Lionel Perret is less alarming. He believes that the Swiss market “has not yet reached the most critical phase” in terms of personnel. “The covid, he explains, has led to a phenomenon of professional retraining, especially of people who had seasonal work. If we speed up again the rhythm of the poses, because it is necessary to achieve the goals set, the shortage of labor will be felt seriously.

“The Great Artillery”

Another problem is hindering this booming market. “In the land of banks, there is no leasing solution for installing solar panels,” recalls Stéphane Genoud. To fund this operation, the owners are forced to use “the big artillery” represented by a mortgage note, the professor depicts, referring to the cost of setting up this legal solution.

Switzerland is also a country of tenants. They represent 70% of the population. Here too, the energy transition has very practical consequences. To switch from boiler heating to a solar solution, lease contracts have to be changed. So many opportunities for tenants to oppose it, Stéphane Genoud underlines. The resale of electricity to the tenant by the owner who has become an energy producer is also not without legal problems. Not to mention the investment. If he can’t recover it by increasing the rent, the landlord will be tempted to do nothing. “Without a quick solution to solve these problems, we will miss the mark,” warns the professor.

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Finally, the size of the buildings presents an unexpected challenge. At the end of 2019, 43% of the available large roofs in the canton of Vaud were already covered with solar panels. It is estimated that this statistic is now over 50%. “Small roofs, however, are a profitability problem,” notes Gérard Greuter, head of the Sustainable Construction Department at Retraites Populaires. Pension funds have been following the energy transition through real estate for several years now. The latter also imposes new logic.

Les Retraites Populaires partnered with a third-party service provider to assess the overall potential of the roofs of their properties. “We want to achieve average profitability on all our assets,” adds the manager. Of the 600 properties, two-thirds have “good potential” and a third of the buildings in this category “have a positive profitability”, according to Gérard Greuter. But when the condition of the building requires major works to change the roof or when an improvement is possible, the issue of photovoltaic energy is given less priority, he emphasizes.

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