The EU – and Germany in particular – is an uncontested world leader in solar power. But the fledgling technology relies heavily on public money to bring down costs and with the economic turmoil EU countries are now having second thoughts about costly subsidy schemes.
- March 2007: EU summit agrees a binding target to source 20% of the EU's overall energy consumption from renewables by 2020.
- Nov. 2007: Commission tables a European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan), highlighting renewable energies as one of the main ways of driving Europe towards a low-carbon economy (EurActiv 23/11/07).
- Jan. 2008: Commission presents a proposal for a directive to reach the EU's 2020 renewables objective.
- Dec. 2008: EU leaders approve the new Renewables Directive (EurActiv 09/12/08).
- March 2009: EU reaches agreement on the third energy liberalisation package (EurActiv 25/03/09). Agreement is formalised by energy ministers in June (full package available here).
- April 2009: EU ministers wrap up climate and energy package, setting in stone the bloc's objective to boost the share of renewables in the total energy mix to 20% by 2020 (EurActiv 7/04/09).
- Oct. 2009: Commission publishes SET-Plan financing communication, listing renewables among the top priorities for energy research (EurActiv 07/10/09).
- Nov. 2009: EU deal on recast Energy Performance of Buildings Directive promotes small decentralised renewable systems (EurActiv 18/11/09).
- 30 June 2010: Deadline for EU states to present National Action Plans (NAPs) on renewables.
- Jan. 2011: Commission progress report calls for doubling investments in renewable energy, from €35 billion to €70 billion, to meet the EU's 2020 targets (EurActiv 31/01/11).
- 2014: Commission to review Renewable Energy Directive, including support schemes and cooperation mechanisms.
- By 2020: EU to source 20% of its total energy consumption from renewables.
A race to reap the economic benefits of renewable energies is beginning all over the world as concerns over limited oil and gas resources and future prices trigger a quest for alternative energy forms.
Moreover, moving towards a low-carbon future is becoming more pressing as the global community progresses towards a new international climate agreement.
A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says solar photovoltaics (PV) has the potential to provide up to one third of the world's electricity supply by 2050.
But the technology still relies on government subsidies and, with the financial crisis, some European countries have brought the funding to a halt.
Three main solar technologies
Solar energy is utilised in three main ways:
- Photovoltaic (PV)systems convert the sun's energy directly into electricity using solar panels. The panels can power appliances and batteries or feed electrcity directly into the grid.
- Solar thermal is typically used in the residential sector to collect the sun's heat in containers filled with fluid or air to heat domestic water and houses, as well as to provide cooling.
- Concentrating solar power (CSP)is a means of producing either solar-thermal or photovoltaic electricity on a large scale. CSP usually uses giant mirrors to collect sunlight from a large area. The rays are then focused on a liquid - such as oil, to produce superheated steam to power a turbine - or targeted on photovoltaic surfaces.
20% share of renewables by 2020
In March 2007, EU heads of state and government adopted a binding target to source 20% of the bloc's overall energy from renewables by 2020. For the transport sector specifically, the share must reach 10%.
In order to reach the target, the European Commission proposed a new directive, which was endorsed by EU leaders at a summit in December that year (see EurActiv LinksDossier).
The legislation sets out national targets for renewable energies but gives member states a free hand to decide which mix of renewables to pursue. EU countries have committed to present National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) by the end of June 2010 as part of the directive (EurActiv 01/07/09).
Improving grid access
But the uptake of solar will ultimately depend on the successful integration of these decentralised energies into the electricity grid, which will require significant infrastructure upgrades across Europe.
To tackle this, the EU aims to ease grid access for renewable electricity. A directive on the internal market for electricity, adopted in June 2009, obliges member states to consider the 20% goal when authorising construction of new generating capacity. Countries may also impose obligations on grid operators to give priority access to energy produced from renewable sources.
Small-scale solar is also promoted in the recast of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, agreed in November 2009. The new law seeks to ensure that decentralised energy supply systems based on renewable energy are considered in all new buildings, as well as those undergoing major renovations.
A race to cut down costs and achieve scale
The sun provides the most abundant source of energy available. Experts estimate that harnessing all the solar energy that reaches Earth for just for an hour would be enough to satisfy global energy demand of an entire year.
Despite its huge promise solar energy currently provides less than 1% of energy sold globally, mainly due to its intermittent nature and low intensity.
The main reason for this has been difficulties exploiting the resource on a large scale at a competitive price. Solar electricity will become attractive when it falls below so-called 'grid parity', the point at which renewable energies become cost-competitive with conventional energy sources like fossil fuels.
But that is changing fast due to favourable regulatory regimes and rapid technological evolution in the industry. Costs have already come down drastically in the past decade, and the European PV industry now believes it will become competitive in some regions, notably southern Italy and Spain, by 2015.
In particular, the industry's initial reliance on crystalline silicon represented an obstacle to the mass-scale production of PV panels, even leading to raw material shortages. But so-called thin-film cells are now being developed that use other semiconductors, such as cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) or other compounds that have made silicon shortages less of an issue.
These low-cost thin-film cells are leading to significant price drops in the PV industry. By 2013, solar cells based on thin-film technology are expected to account for 34.5% of worldwide solar production, up from 14.2% in 2008, according to iSupply, a technology consultancy.
Although less efficient than conventional solar panels, CdTe allows for quicker assembly and mass production of solar panels at lower cost, a method designed for energy production at utility-scale.
In parallel, small rooftop installations are expected to provide an additional boost to the sector as private households and factories turn to solar power for their electricity needs (see EurActiv LinksDossier on Microgeneration).
Industry eyes grid parity with fossil fuels
The market for solar electricity is growing rapidly as more countries introduce subsidies to bring down production costs and to boost research into more efficient techniques.
The industry believes that solar will be able to compete with fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2020 at the latest (so-called 'grid parity'). When exactly this will happen will be driven by sun irradiation and economies of scale, which accelerate the drop in prices. The price of crude oil will also be a major factor, as it is expected to become more expensive amid depleting resources and a carbon premium added to the price.
But Solar PV could outpace those forecasts and achieve grid parity across the EU by 2017, according to Sven Teske, a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s recent report on renewable energies.
Teske, who is also renewables director at Greenpeace International, told EurActiv that on current trends, he expected Spain, Italy, France and Germany to reach grid parity by 2015.
Eleni Despotou, deputy secretary-general of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), is slightly less optimistic. Speaking to EurActiv in May 2011, she said: "We have recently done a study that shows that in Italy we can reach grid parity in two years' time, in Germany in all market segments by 2017, Spain 2016".
Meanwhile, smaller scale solar-thermal is often considered a more mature technology, already providing households with affordable domestic water and space heating, as well as cooling.
Solar thermal accounts for the lion's share of the global solar market, according to the Worldwatch Institute but receives less attention and R&D funding than the more tech-based photovoltaic (PV) sector (EurActiv 24/08/09). The European Solar Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF) reported a 60% growth in solar-thermal capacity in the EU in 2008 but has since suffered two consecutive years of recession in the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis.
Incentives: Avoiding stop-and-go policies
Where solar installations have taken off, they tend to have been encouraged by generous state subsidies.
Germany is the obvious point of reference as it became the world leader in photovoltaic capacity with the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). Adopted in 2000 and revised in 2003, the law guarantees a minimum feed-in tariff for solar energy, ensuring that solar producers sell their electricity back to the grid at a price higher than the market.
Spain, another key global market for solar power, experienced an unprecedented growth in photovoltaic installations after introducing a very favourable feed-in tariff in 2007. But the government grossly underestimated the appetite for solar, leading to an unprecedented surge in installed capacity as solar became competitive with coal-fired power plants.
By the end of 2007, the country had already far exceeded the target of 400 MW installed solar capacity that it had set for 2010, and the programme was suspended. The successor scheme of 2009 reduced tariffs considerably and introduced a cap of 500MW for capacity to be built.
The government's decision to cancel these subsidies led to a crash in the artificially-inflated market, as a surplus of panels drove prices down.
While the feed-in tariff in Spain has become a watchword for government renewables policy gone wrong, the German model and its incremental tariff reductions has been followed by France, Italy and the Czech Republic, all of which are keen to enter the solar race (EurActiv 24/07/09).
The idea is that feed-in tariffs will be reduced over time as production costs come down, eventually ceasing to exist altogether when the alternative energy source is able to compete with conventional sources of electricity. In Germany, for example, the cost of PV systems halved between 1997 and 2007 (see EurActiv LinksDossier on the 'transition' schemes).
But the economic turmoil is also taking its toll on state coffers and many governments have started rolling back costly subsidy schemes.
In Germany, France, Italy and Spain tariff cuts are pending. In Bulgaria the industry could be chopped off at the knee, while the UK is considering ending tariffs altogether for installations generating more than 50kW of capacity.
For many industry observers, the cuts are happening too quickly, unpredictably and, often, retroactively. "It was a moratorium. Everything stopped, the market stopped," said Eleni Despotou of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), commenting about France's decision to cut its feed-in tariff.
In the long run, Despotou said stop-and-go subsidies, like in France and Spain, were putting the industry at risk. "We are seeing a migration of factories from Europe to Asia already. This is happening and it's really quite important," she told EurActiv in an interview.
Towards large-scale solar farms
While solar power lends itself well to residential applications, doubts have been raised as to whether it will ever be able to rival conventional energy sources and even wind power when it comes to utility-scale electricity production.
But this is starting to change as the technology progresses and governments around the world commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The prospect of large-scale energy generation from solar PV is now drawing increasing interest from energy behemoths like General Electric and Total, which have recently announced acquisitions in the sector. GE, which entered the wind business a decade ago, now hopes to repeat this success with solar, with plans to open America's largest solar thin-film photovoltaic factory in 2013.
"This will be the initial market to focus on: utility-operated and utility-scale solar farms," said Mark Vachon, vice-president of GE Energy's Ecoimagination programme. "I still think the market is largely immature and I think our scale will bring us to a position we will be proud of," he told EurActiv.
The company's chief executive, Jeff Immelt, told investors in December that he believed it could be a $2 billion to $3 billion business for GE by 2015.
Large solar parks have already been built in Europe, the biggest being the 60MW Olmedilla photovoltaic park in Spain. However, these installations still need government support and the farms take up considerable space, inviting the wrath of environmentalists.
The EU's first commercial concentrating solar power (CSP) plant was inaugurated in Seville, Spain in 2007. It uses hundreds of mirrors, called heliostats, to focus sunrays on a receiver at the top of a tall tower, converting the beams into steam that drives a turbine. The plant is expected to supply enough power to serve the needs of the 600,000 citizens of Seville.
With several new large-scale projects in the pipeline, Spain has taken the lead on CSP but several projects are being planned and developed in the US too. A study published by Greenpeace International, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association (ESTELA) and the International Energy Agency's SolarPACES in May 2009 estimated that CSP could meet up to 7% of the world's power needs by 2030.
The greatest potential for large-scale CSP lies in areas that get a lot of direct sunlight without much humidity, like deserts. Experts thus expect the most growth to take place in areas like the southwest United States and the Mediterranean countries of Europe and Africa. But there are problems there too as SCP requires large amounts of water to wash the mirrors and heat the water to turn the turbines.
Saharan sun to power Europe?
While solar power's potential far exceeds demand, importing solar electricity is becoming an interesting prospect for those countries where the resource is less abundant.
In Europe, Germany is leading a group of countries interested in bringing solar electricity from North Africa to meet their climate goals and diversify their energy mix. The most prominent example is the Desertec project, which has created a large political buzz in Germany and has the backing of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (EurActiv 22/07/09).
The project aims to bring solar electricity generated in the Sahara to Europe via a high-voltage cable. The investors, including German energy giants RWE and E.ON, envisage that desert sunlight could eventually provide 15% of Europe's electricity needs.
The European Commission has embraced solar power as a technology that can help the EU meet its climate and renewable energy targets for 2020.
But the EU's climate action commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, warned EU nations to remember these targets when taking decisions to cut back feed-in tariffs for solar PV. "Take care that you, the member states, are not doing anything retroactively that will just make people fear to invest in this area," she told EurActiv. "It's in nobody's interests."
"That does not mean that if you've had the feed-in tariff once it can never, ever be changed. But you have to be very cautious and you have to give very, very long warnings."
In 2007, the EU's PV Technology Platform, an industry grouping, estimated that grid parity would only "apply to most of Europe by 2020". The European Photovoltaic Industry Association made the same prediction.
"Reaching grid parity will depend on the geographical situation, irradiation and the price of electricity," said Eleni Despotou, secretary-general of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) in a May 2011 interview with EurActiv. "We have recently done a study that shows that in Italy we can reach grid parity in two years' time, in Germany in all market segments by 2017, Spain 2016," she told EurActiv.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that solar power could provide as much as 11% of global electricity production in 2050. But this is conditional on many countries putting in place incentive schemes to support solar energy in the next five to ten years so that investment costs come down.
The European Solar Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF) argued that solar thermal is already well-anchored in European markets and stimulates the contracting economy with impressive growth records. "With oil prices rising again, we believe that our sector will continue to grow steadily and be less affected by the current economic turmoil," said ESTIF President Olivier Drücke.
The association conceded that the take-up of solar thermal varies widely between countries, requiring action to convince installers and heating equipment traders in laggard countries that solar thermal is an attractive option. But it added: "Where solar thermal has reached a 'critical mass' we see that companies invest further in market development, which leads to more buildings being equipped with solar thermal collectors."
In an exclusive interview with EurActiv, Sven Teske, a contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)'s recent report on renewable energies, told EurActiv he was positive about the prospects for solar PV in Europe.
On current trends, he said he expected Spain, Italy, France and Germany to reach grid parity by 2015. Attaining parity across the EU as a whole would take "five, maybe six years," said Teske, who is also renewables director at Greenpeace International.
However, Teske warned that progress could be endangered by market uncertainty over the future of feed-in tariffs.
First Solar, a leading manufacturer of solar panels, believes that its cadmium telluride technology will make affordable solar electricity a reality. "Looking ahead to the next two to four years, First Solar will be in a position to produce power from the sun at costs competitive with conventional electricity generated from fossil fuels, paving the way for a large-scale transition to the cleaner energies we need to prevent irreversible damage to our planet," said First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn.
Applied Materials, a manufacturer of equipment for solar panels, urged EU policymakers to maintain the pressure to bring about a paradigm shift to renewable energies. "PV electricity has the potential to make a serious contribution to energy security and savings in Europe. We need to think of PV not simply as an added cost: it is an investment by society into a cleaner and greener environment," said Applied Materials CEO Mike Splinter.
Environmentalistshave welcomed solar power as an important part of sustainable policies.
Greenpeace congratulated the EU for enabling its 20% target for renewables like solar to become a reality by setting binding national targets in the new Renewables Directive. "This agreement is a new dawn for a clean energy future that will benefit both the climate and the economy," said Frauke Thies, Greenpeace EU's renewables policy campaigner.