Spanish MEP: Solar thermal needs to ‘at least triple’ by 2030

"The integration of solar thermal with heat pumps is a win-win solution," according to Nicolás González Casares. [© European Union 2021 - Source : EP]

This article is part of our special report Solar thermal: En route to 2030.

One of the lawmakers steering the revision of the EU’s renewable energy directive in the European Parliament has called on the European Union to “at least triple” or even quadruple the production of clean energy from solar thermal by the end of the decade.

Nicolás González Casares is a Spanish MEP from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament. He is shadow rapporteur for the revised Renewable Energy Directive.

He spoke to EURACTIV ahead of the 30th anniversary of Solar Heat Europe, which will be celebrated on 20 June 2022.

You are shadow rapporteur for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) on the Renewable Energy Directive in the European Parliament. What will be the priorities of your group for this reform?

We are in a crisis because of the war in Ukraine, and energy has been used as a weapon by Russia. I think that this situation has underscored how vulnerable we are, and how dependent we are on fossil fuels from third countries, in this case from Russia.

We know that we have to speed up decarbonisation, not only to address the ongoing climate emergency but also because of the energy security reasons.

So, I think the European Commission’s REPowerEU proposal goes in the right direction. This is in line with the Parliament’s call for more ambition on renewable energies, with a new 45% target and also more energy efficiency.

We support this 45% target by 2030. But we believe it has to be met with real renewable energy only. For us, there is no place for low-carbon technologies in this directive. This is a very important point: we need to maintain the consistency of this proposal, which means only truly sustainable, renewable energy can be part of this directive.

The review also includes speeding up the administrative permits for renewable energy, also taking into account problems with public acceptance. But of course, we have to speed up wind and solar energy, and the Commission’s Solar Rooftop Initiative is also working in this direction.

Regarding the low-carbon energies that you mentioned: this is a reference to low-carbon fuels and hydrogen which are included in the renewables directive, I suppose?

Yes. For me, it’s not acceptable to include low-carbon technologies, because this is a renewable energy directive. And low-carbon technologies are not renewable.

Where do you think these low-carbon technologies should be addressed, then?

Low-carbon technologies should be in the gas package. And in the Renewable Energy Directive, we should only to mention green hydrogen made from renewable electricity.

Do you think there is consensus on this among the political groups in Parliament?

Some proposals put forward by Markus Pieper, the rapporteur for the European People’s Party (EPP), have received wide backing, like the increase of the target from 40 to 45%. And this is a strong point for him.

But the EPP is also trying to incorporate these low-carbon technologies into this directive. And that has encountered a lot of opposition, for example from my group, the Socialists & Democrats (S&D).

Renew has also adopted the same line as us, as well as the Greens and of course, the Left. So, we have a majority against the inclusion of low-carbon technologies in this text, which for me is one of the most controversial points.

I don’t want to say in the middle of an ongoing negotiation process that this is a red line, but it is.

You mentioned that there is a strong consensus in Parliament to increase the EU’s renewable energy target from 40 to 45% by 2030. What differentiates the S&D from the EPP and groups? Do you have other requests to put on the table?

The real problem is not the target, we can agree on this target. Where we disagree is on the ways to achieve it. Using low-carbon technologies is not the way to do it. For me, it is important to maintain consistency as I mentioned before.

The EPP proposal now is to establish a 45% target. But we say this must be absolutely renewable. I don’t think this is a big difference, I believe we can finally reach an agreement because otherwise, the EPP will be in trouble. It would be very difficult for them to open the door for these low-carbon technologies idea.

Widespread support in EU Parliament for 45% renewable energy target

In reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is growing support across the European Parliament to increase the EU’s 2030 renewable energy target and break away from Russian fossil fuels, lawmakers from across the political spectrum told EURACTIV.

What about the use of renewables in the heating sector? With the war in Ukraine, there is an emergency now to decarbonise heating, which relies heavily on gas. Do you think the Renewable Energy Directive has to be changed to take this into account?

About heating and cooling in the building sector, the first thing is to increase efficiency. Because we can electrify this sector with renewables, but right now it is going to be very difficult to do this in one, two or three years.

So we have to think first about energy efficiency, how to save energy. But of course, heating and cooling currently account for half of the EU’s energy consumption, so we have to promote the increase of renewables in this sector.

The proposal to modify the Renewable Energy Directive established improvements to align the heating and cooling objective with the EU’s objective of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030. For example, there is a new article to increase the share of renewables in the industrial sector. Heat accounts for 70% of energy demand from industry and we need new measures to integrate renewables in the residential sector as well.

In this discussion, I think there is room for improvement to adapt the objectives to the new situation. We need measures for example to reduce emissions in sectors like steelmaking which require high temperatures and are difficult to abate.

And we have to differentiate these from measures in industries with low or medium temperature processes, where there is a greater variety of possibilities for decarbonisation. And in other cases, we can use solar heat.

There is room for improvement in the heating and cooling sector when it comes to renewables. And of course, for me, the solar rooftop obligation for public and commercial buildings by 2026, and for residential buildings by 2029, is also an opportunity for citizens to actively participate in the management of energy and also protect themselves from price fluctuations.

As part of REPowerEU, the Commission put forward a Solar Rooftop Initiative with this obligation to install solar panels for public and commercial buildings as well as for residential buildings. I understand you support the Commission’s proposal, but do you believe it can be improved?

I support the Commission’s proposal but I want to know if we can improve it. We need an assessment, we are calling for more information when it comes to this debate as part of the co-decision process.

If we find some room to improve this proposal, we will, because I think that exceptional times require exceptional measures. like the commissioner has said.

We need, for example, to relocate windfall profits to improve the deployment of solar energy. So, I fully support this proposal but we have some room to improve it.

The Commission recommends making solar rooftop mandatory for new public and commercial buildings as of 2026 and as of 2029 for new, private residential buildings. Is this a reasonable timeline in your view? Or do you think it can be done even faster?

This is very difficult to answer. We could aim to move the deadline earlier by one year – in 2025 for commercial buildings, and 2028 for residential buildings for example.

But the problem then is about the supply. This is one of my concerns. Because if we are going to do this transition, if we invest our money in Chinese solar panels, this a problem for Europe because we also want to promote our strategic autonomy. And in this case, it is not a great example of strategic autonomy.

So we have to keep this balance in mind: how to achieve these objectives of renewable and solar rooftops in Europe but, at the same time, making it possible also with European technology. I think that we need a debate among all stakeholders involved if it is possible to produce a certain rate of solar panels also in Europe.

Because if we buy all our solar panels from China, it might be good for a big deployment of renewable electricity but a bad strategy for our industry.

The Commission actually proposed launching a Solar Industry Alliance as well, as part of its REPowerEU proposal in May. What do you think the Solar Alliance should focus on?

I think it is an opportunity. And it is our duty as lawmakers to support this initiative and how to speed up the possibility of European production of solar panels.

We need more industry because we cannot only be buyers. And we also have to prepare workers with newer skills when it comes to these new installations because we are going to need a lot of labour force.

I believe we can make one step forward when it comes to this industry. Because we have lots of expertise and industrial capabilities in the wind sector, but we lack a proper industrial sector for solar. So we have to build this industrial sector, we have to put money on that.

I don’t have anything against Chinese partners, but I think that we should invest also in European technologies.

There is a proposal, again part of REPowerEU, to integrate renewable sources of energy like geothermal, but also solar thermal in district heating systems for example. Do you think this is a good idea and how do you think this could be achieved or encouraged?

I think that the EU’s solar industry alliance should aim to expand the domestic production of solar power, and also integrate solar thermal. If we can at least triple, or make it four times by 2030, I think this would be the right direction for solar thermal. And the same goes for geothermal.

So tripling or quadrupling geothermal and solar thermal by 2030?

Yes, I think this would go in the right direction.

Do you think this should be added as a sub-target in the renewable energy directive?

We don’t have a solar heat objective in the proposal, only a reference.

I think the integration of solar thermal with heat pumps is a win-win solution with geothermal and so on. So, I think there are possibilities to do that and improve these technologies. Because we have a lot of European technologies and production in Europe. And it is a good opportunity to do that.

So you think solar thermal and geothermal should be added as a sub-target to the Renewable Energy Directive?

I’m not sure we will have room to have this sub-target. But we already propose measures and tools to improve the promotion of these technologies.

We will bring this into the negotiation process. Because for us, I was working also in the EU energy system integration in the Parliament. And this was one of the highlights, how to better integrate all of these new technologies in an efficient way.

This is not only about installing individual heat pumps or solar panels on buildings, it’s also about district heating. It is important to have this in mind as well.

Solar seen claiming up to 60% of EU power mix by 2050

A 100% renewable energy scenario developed by Finland’s LUT University predicts that electricity could make up 85% of the EU’s energy mix by 2050, more than 60% of which would be generated by solar panels.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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