Solar’s unique opportunity to lead the re-industrialisation of Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Planning for large scale, high volume solar PV manufacturing here in Europe may seem like a tall task, but it is becoming more and more apparent that the scale of the climate crisis dwarfs even the most ambitious of plans, writes Stefan Degener.

Stefan Degener is the Vice President of SolarPower Europe, a trade association.

In Ursula Von der Leyen’s recent state of the union speech, she didn’t mince words when speaking on the importance of this shift laid out in the European Green Deal.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic did offer some temporary reduction in CO2 emissions, it will take a concerted effort to ensure real positive change as the EU climbs back towards full industrial capacity.

Although solar and wind deployment have showed steady growth throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not been enough to offset the continued closing of nuclear power plants – meaning fossil fuel use has actually increased in this time. This suggests that, as we stand, we don’t yet have the right systems in place to earnestly build up renewable capacities.

Solar in particular stands to play a particularly pronounced role in the turnaround of European industry, and the economy at large.

While solar power currently accounts for only 5% of European power generation, that figure is expected to rise to 36% by 2050 – with Finland’s Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology forecasting that the number could rise to as much as 62%.

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.

In his speech at the Solar Power Summit in September Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, acknowledged the need for an aggressive build-out plan for solar.

This was confirmed in the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent 2020 World Energy Outlook.

In the report, the IEA proclaimed that solar has cemented itself as the “new king of electricity supply and looks set for massive expansion”. This proclamation is supported by the fact that solar is set to account for more new generation capacity than any asset class in the coming decades.

Although China currently produces the majority of PV panels, the disruption caused by COVID-19 made it abundantly clear that Europe should not strictly rely on imports when it comes to essential infrastructure.

The expansion of Europe’s solar value chain will not only enable upwards of 500,000 highly skilled jobs by 2030, it also presents a lifeline for regions affected by ongoing coal phase outs.

This has been one of the most contentious topics surrounding Europe’s energy transition, and one which will need a well thought out plan in order to get more parties on board with a full transition away from fossil fuels.

An annual deployment of 25-30+ GW in Europe would make solar PV a highly important economic factor for the continent, which could well support a European Solar Industrial Ecosystem.

Although Europe is already a R&D hub for solar PV, much work will need to be done in order to support the ramp up of solar development, high-volume manufacturing at scale, and ultimately energy generation.

This points to a massive opportunity if investment is made in the right regions and technologies.

The massive scope of the energy transition may appear daunting to some, but perhaps it should rather be looked at as an opportunity – the continued growth of the solar industry will demand a continually expanding workforce, and if given the proper support, this industry can bring prosperity to regions at risk of being left behind in the transition.

This past May, SolarPower Europe launched the Solar Manufacturing Accelerator, a platform aimed at accelerating the deployment of solar PV manufacturing projects in Europe as a means of not only strengthening Europe’s leadership in renewable energies, but to make a vital contribution to the sustainable re-industrialisation of Europe.

This platform will play a leading role in the strategic expansion of the industry, but this expert led initiative should also be supported by an equally ambitious regulatory framework. The presence of stable and reliable regulations, with a future-focused vision, will ensure investment risk is low for companies looking to enter the region.

Planning for large scale, high volume manufacturing right here in Europe may seem like a tall task, but it is becoming more and more apparent that the scale of the climate crisis dwarfs even the most ambitious of plans.

Not only should we aim for a large-scale solar build up, but as von der Leyen alluded to in her speech, we need to do it faster and better than previously envisioned.

Reaching these goals will require immense cooperation between industry, governments and communities – but if done successfully, can play a leading role in securing the future of not only Europe, but the planet.

An eminent differentiator for Europe would be a strong call for environmental performance standards, giving the continent a means of building on its leading position in enabling a decarbonised future.

Transparent quality and sustainability criteria in public procurement programmes, along with high entry levels supported by the implementation of new regulations on Eco-Design and Energy Labeling will be paramount to making this vision a reality, and in turn to generate ultra-low carbon electricity with solar PV installations.

Europe has the chance to once again take the lead in ushering in a new era of industrialisation – one cleaner, more sustainable and more just than we have ever seen.

The climate crisis is a global issue in a way we have never experienced before. It will not be enough to cut carbon in our home countries or even home continent. It is vital that Europe takes this opportunity to lay the groundwork for a global energy transition that can successfully limit climate change to 1.5°C or less.

The state of the union speech by von der Leyen was a powerful moment for European politics. However, it has become evident that words alone will not solve the existential crisis the world now finds itself in.

It is time to make a concerted effort to actively support the growth of the European solar industry, and the build up of renewable energy capacities both home and abroad.

The timely removal of investment barriers, such as access to affordable land and cheap electricity, the build-up of a regional supply chain and the financing support from the European Investment Bank and other public lenders for both solar manufacturing and clean power generation, would be key to build the solar industrial ecosystem in Europe.

These vital points are all mandated in the Green Deal, making this piece of legislature the focal point of any successful transition.

In a joint effort between political stakeholders, energy regulators and the industry we can ensure a just transition, using evidence-based support systems and an already existing industrial capacity.

Europe has the means to come out of the COVID-19 crisis stronger and more resilient than ever before – it’s time to answer the call and begin building our better future together.

Europe’s solar PV sector reports 104% growth in 2019

With a growth rate of 104%, Europe’s solar photovoltaic industry is experiencing a “boom in installations,” according to statistics published on Tuesday (10 December) by SolarPower Europe, an industry association.

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