03. 02. 2014

Solar Sunrise

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Bit by bit, the solar industry is building its global presence. It’s an uneven story (with one country up one year, and another making the running the next), and it’s a story dogged by completely dysfunctional policy-making, and by the continuing stranglehold of the oil and gas industries over energy policy as a whole. Those two things are of course intricately connected.

At the recent World Future Energy Summit, the solar industry was visibly and compellingly on display. Both established companies (from around the world) and relative newcomers, with a strong case to make for their own individual ‘breakthroughs’, wanted a slice of the action – and a share of the attention of the 30,000 or so delegates!

There’s a lot of sunshine in Abu Dhabi – as there is across the whole of the Middle East region. The 21 countries in the region have some of the highest solar irradiance levels in the world. But the solar revolution has been slow to develop in that part of the world – why bother when you’ve got access to massive reserves of fossilised solar energy captured in all that oil and gas?

That’s now changing. The figure doing the rounds at the World Future Energy Summit was $50 billion to be invested in the Middle East in solar technologies of one kind or another over the next seven years – moving from where they are today (a pretty pathetic 380MW) to 15,000MW by 2020.

The ambition level is very different in different countries. Abu Dhabi is aiming at just 7% for all renewables by 2020, which is a bit sad – and only marginally better than Dubai’s target of 1%, which is all the more incomprehensible given that Dubai has almost no oil and gas of its own.

The surprise star of the Middle East solar story is Saudi Arabia. There are high hopes that its target of 25MW for Concentrated Solar Power will create the conditions for a proper infrastructure and supply chain for CSP across the region, and its target of 41,000MW for PV by 2032 (it has just 12MW today!) is quite something – not least because it would require installing 10,000 solar panels a day every day to reach that target!

All of which gives rise to a healthy level of scepticism – with lots of wry comments about Middle East countries being more interested in ‘bragawatts’ than installed megawatts!

But things are looking pretty good elsewhere in the world as well as in the Middle East. Five countries (Germany, Italy, China, the US and Japan) have passed the 1,000MW threshold, and there’s still huge expansion in the pipeline in all of those countries. China hopes to see 12,000MW installed in 2014 alone; even the USA is aiming at 6,000MW.

Growth in Germany and Japan will continue, but a lot depends on government policy in both countries. Feed-in Tariffs in Japan are currently very generous, but they expire in March, and the government has been giving out very cautious signals – as has the new ‘Grand Coalition’ in Germany. Angela Merkel has created a new Economy and Energy super-ministry, headed by an old SDP hand, Sigmar Gabriel, who has a disturbingly soft spot for Germany’s coal industry.

And that’s the rub. A new report from the European Photovoltaic Industry Association has bitterly attacked the mind-numbing inconsistency and incompetence of European policy-makers:

“The European PV sector has been continuously facing retrospective measures and other unplanned changes that directly attack the stability and viability of investments in a number of countries. By generating an unstable environment for investment, such measures have provoked project cancellations, bankruptcies and job losses in the PV sector. What’s more, they are putting governments’ credibility at risk, with negative implications for the whole European economy.”

(It cites Spain as an example. In 2008, the PV industry supported 80,000 direct and indirect jobs. Today, that figure is down to just 7,000.)

Those of a somewhat paranoid persuasion will be tempted to see in this kind of development an unhealthy (some would say corrupt) nexus of relationships between governments and the oil and gas industries. Solar has few big guns (and zero slush funds) to deploy when confronted by the massive firepower of the fossil fuel lobbies.

In truth, despite all that, this remains the single most important pivot point for the future of humankind. How quickly can governments be persuaded to free themselves of this chronic dependency on fossil fuels? If the UK government is anything to go by, with its febrile, knee-jerk embrace of fracking as the solution to all our problems, we still have a long, hard battle ahead of us.

Which is why I’m now convinced that technology and economics will sort this out, not public policy. As the costs of PV keep falling and efficiencies keep rising, more and more parts of the world will turn to solar because it just works better – economically.

Back at the World Future Energy Summit, Professor Eicke Weber, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, the winner of this year’s Zayed Future Energy Prize in the NGO category, quietly reminded people what this is all about. Counselling caution regarding any further development of oil and gas, he urged delegates to remember ‘that the sun can provide us with all the energy we humans need.”
 

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