Christian Hürlimann joined MET Group in May 2021 with a mission: the Swiss aims to build up the renewables portfolio at the European gas seller. Prior to his job as “Renewables CEO”, he headed the same division for several years at the Zurich-based energy supplier EKZ. MET wants to establish a portfolio with an installed capacity of 2 GW by 2026.
Most recently, Hürlimann entered the German renewables market with MET and acquired the Kentzlin photovoltaic project (11.5 MW) in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which is scheduled to go into operation in the second half of 2024.
ZfK: The market in Germany is competitive and also not easy from a regulatory point of view. Why are you entering the fray here?
Hürlimann: The battle is not only in Germany, but really in all interesting markets. Besides Germany, these also include France, Spain and Italy. The idea is to link our assets with our other activities, especially in the distribution of energy to customers of different sizes, and thus create added value. Germany is simply one of the core energy markets where we want to operate and see opportunities. We are starting with a small project to get a foothold here and then we will move on to bigger ones.
MET started investing in renewables a few years ago. How is your renewables portfolio distributed in Europe now?
We currently have the most installed capacity in operation in Hungary, which is also where we started. MET bought the Dunamenti combined cycle gas power plant (794 MW) in 2014, which includes a larger area with grid connection, where we then developed mainly PV projects. After the projects in Hungary, we then acquired two wind farms in Bulgaria... then we expanded our renewables portfolio further west. We added Italy, Spain, Germany, as well as Poland and Romania.
These are very different countries, how does MET decide where to build assets?
We are mainly active in markets where we already have a good presence in trading and sales. The energy generated by our renewable plants can be sold to end consumers by our sales teams in the respective countries. MET Group has its own branches in 14 countries, and we have customers of all sizes – from energy-intensive industrial groups and medium-sized companies to small businesses and, in some cases, households. Another option is that we sell the electricity we generate via energy exchanges. In addition, we are also open to PPAs – this involves entering into partnerships with large companies in the area of medium to long-term electricity procurement from our solar plants and wind farms.
Is the German market to become central to your renewables portfolio?
Germany is important for the portfolio, but no country should become too strong. We are diversifying – for that we look at the regulatory environment locally and the resources, but of course also the technology. We do not want to be too exposed to external forces that we cannot influence ourselves. Around 200 MW in Germany is a realistic target as part of our plan to build a total portfolio of 2 GW by 2026.
You just said you are also diversifying in technologies. Is offshore wind also of interest to you?
The focus is currently primarily on solar and onshore wind. However, we are essentially opportunistic, and if interesting opportunities arise in the area of offshore wind, we are very happy to take a look at them.
Have you already participated in an offshore tender in Germany?
What about the financing? Is it all being done from your own funds or are you also looking for financing partners?
We can do the project development independently and we can also push ahead with the construction to a very large extent with our own funds. When it comes to commissioning, we would like to refinance the projects. We have already done this with certain projects in order to free up capital that can then be used elsewhere in project development and in the construction of renewable power plants.
To come back to Germany, what challenges do you see for the expansion of renewables here?
Land in the PV sector is becoming increasingly scarce, which is why agri-PV projects could also become more and more interesting in the next few years. What we also notice when everything is now concentrated on one technology is that we have cannibalization effects: flexibilities on the market are decreasing. The capture prices for solar are therefore a challenge in such a market environment. In future, this must be taken into account in project development, and flexibilities, such as battery storage directly at the power plant site, must be developed accordingly.
You are observing the expansion of renewables throughout Europe. How would you describe Germany’s speed compared to other countries?
For us, a project idea becomes a project when the land and grid access are secured. The grid in Germany is relatively well built. The securing of land, the coordination with municipalities, also works. Although the first municipalities are now issuing negative decisions because they already have too much PV. In addition, there are greater demands for environmental protection than in other Central and Eastern European EU member states, for example. There, the critical points are the grid connection and the corresponding conditions.
In which sector are you planning the next project in Germany?
We are making sure that we have access to our sales markets. Projects around 40 MW and larger near offtake centres come into question here. Developing a project for the future supply of electricity to an industrial customer is very interesting for us.
Historically, MET was, and still is, a big natural gas trader. How important will renewables be for you in the next five years?
MET comes from the gas sector in trading, then power trading was built up and the LNG sector. In addition, corresponding asset positions were built up, i.e. gas storage facilities and combined cycle power plants. But of course, we can see the transition to net zero. The first step is therefore to build up our operational assets in the renewables sector to a similar size. And then we want to expand them to the point where we can use them in trading and electricity sales.
Gas will still be relevant for more than ten years to ensure the flexibility we need for renewables. What comes after that is not yet entirely clear. But it may well be something similar to gas: hydrogen, ammonia or methanol.
Somehow every country is building its own solutions. Is that critical for you? Natural gas is one commodity, and then you might have many different ones later on.
At the end of the day, these are all commodities and as a company with a strong trading background, we have a good understanding of this. I am very sure that when the volumes increase, MET will be ready.
(The interview was conducted by Pauline Faust)