We talked to Martin Putschek, CEO at Swimsol, about solar energy and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Martin Putschek: Covid has been a challenging time for our employees and their families as we adapt to work-from-home, and working from different countries and continents. We are very lucky that everyone has stayed healthy, which is at the end of the day the most important thing. However, we are all missing being in the office together, and getting to see one another in person, rather than just on Zoom.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Swimsol.
Martin Putschek: A common problem in small island nations, like the Maldives, is that all of their electricity comes from diesel generators – one of the most expensive and polluting power sources there is. One solution for this problem is to install roof-mounted photovoltaic systems and offset some of the diesel usages. However, in order to power an entire island with solar energy, you would need a photovoltaic system sometimes larger than the island itself.
Martin Putschek has had a long career in the IT and solar energy sector before founding Swimsol. While on a trip to the Maldives in 2009, Martin came up with a solution to the problem of an abundance of sun, but not so much available land. If you have maxed out the available space for photovoltaics on land, why not put photovoltaics on the sea? He came up with the idea of developing a marine floating solar system with which we can provide any required solar capacity to almost any island, allowing them to switch off their diesel gen-sets completely during daytime
Martin founded Swimsol in 2012 and worked in cooperation with the Technical University of Vienna to develop SolarSeaTM- the world’s first commercial modular marine-grade floating solar system. Today we have 55 employees, and have successfully completed projects in the Maldives, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and are currently expanding into new markets.
How does Swimsol innovate?
Martin Putschek: Swimsol technology has been specifically designed to withstand the maximum wave heights inside the Maldivian atolls, and is made with materials that do not corrode and can tolerate salinity. It was created in cooperation with the Technical University of Vienna over a four-year development process of computer simulations, wave channel tests, and on-site testing- while constantly enhancing the system to reduce costs.
SolarSeaTM is thus set apart from other floating-photovoltaic systems due to its ability to withstand sea conditions and survive tropical weather. SolarSeaTM opens up a whole new market for solar energy use. Solar systems no longer have to be confined to roofs, land, or enclosed water bodies – but can now take to the sea!
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Martin Putschek: Swimsol has been very lucky that Covid-19 has not impacted our work as dramatically as other companies. Our main customers are resorts in the Maldives and other tropical regions. With the onslaught of Covid, travel restrictions, and border closures, our clients have suffered this past year as the hospitality industry has taken a huge hit. At the beginning of the crisis, Swimsol’s biggest concern was the uncertainty of how long the pandemic would last, and if resorts would be able to survive the long periods of closure. The Maldives are open to tourism again and are in fact back to pre-crisis occupancy in their resorts. This means Swimsol is now busier than ever. Since August 2020, we have begun to send installation teams back to the Maldives for projects.
One aspect which temporarily became quite difficult was obtaining financing for our solar projects in the Maldives. To all of our resort customers, we offer a zero-investment option which allows the resorts to immediately benefit from solar without having to make a vast investment. For this, we need financing from banks and investors, who of course became quite reluctant given the tough situation the tourism sector was in. In the meanwhile, luckily the situation has improved.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Martin Putschek: We are very lucky as we have made it this far into the Coronavirus pandemic with all of our staff. In fact, we have recently hired several new employees for the sales team, and a new engineer.
Since we are based in Austria, we were lucky to benefit from the government’s “Kurzarbeit” scheme- which was designed to safeguard jobs and allows companies to retain their employees, while simultaneously relieving the economic pressures of Covid on enterprises. This was particularly helpful after travel restrictions closed down most of the resorts- leading to a decline in workload. As we already had a “work from home” option in place, this also allowed for a smoother transition for our employees.
At the end of the day, if we had to take away a lesson it would be that if you have a good team from the start, even a pandemic can’t bring you down.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Martin Putschek: Before the crises, at least one member of our Vienna-based sales team was always in the Maldives or in Southeast Asia to meet with customers face-to-face. Explaining the technicalities of solar systems is simply easier when you are sitting next to each other. Once this was no longer possible, like many other companies, we have completely switched to tools such as Zoom or Webex. These solutions are not a perfect replacement for physical meetings but have contributed immensely to sustaining our relationships with our customers. Still, we look forward to meeting them in person again.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Martin Putschek: Yes, Swimsol did receive financial aid, such as the aforementioned “Kurzarbeit-money” from the government during the pandemic. Given that our clientele was simultaneously suffering during Covid, these grants went a long way to assisting our company through this difficult time.
Your final thoughts?
Martin Putschek: COVID-19 has brought a lot of attention to energy use as residential and private consumption of energy has naturally skyrocketed. People are becoming more aware of where their energy is coming from, and what it costs to produce. As a solar energy company, this pandemic has reinforced our belief in what we do, and we are now more motivated than ever to bring solar energy to remote places like the Maldives.
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