Solar power has hit a rough patch in Europe the past year. From Germany to Spain, incentives to boost solar capacity have decreased while local companies struggle to compete against cheap Chinese photovoltaic (PV) imports. Despite the recent fiscal crises, however, solar energy, as stated in a recently released European Commission report, continues to surge ahead in Europe: 280-fold, in fact, between 2000 and the end of 2011. A sector that contributed 185 megawatts of power to Europe’s grid in 2000 has rapidly spiked and will continue its overall boom.
Europe now generates 52 gigawatts of solar energy, which is still only 2 percent of the continent’s total power output–but enough to fuel all of Austria according to various news sources. And despite the continued depressing economic news that has spread from the Atlantic to the Russian border, two-thirds of PV installations across the world in 2011 were in Europe.
Ironically, the same cheap solar panels that some blame for killing European companies have been the driver of the increased solar capacity in the EU. Arnold Jäger-Waldeu, head of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center of Renewable Energy, said in the report’s preface that in come countries the cost of PV-generated power is cheaper than conventional residential electricity prices. In the more competitive markets, the average cost of PV power systems have decreased as much as 60 percent since 2008. Furthermore, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2001 spooked many European countries to boost investment in solar and other renewables. After the USA ($48 billion) and China ($45.5 billion), Germany and Italy were the world’s largest investors in solar with sums of $35 billion and $30.6 billion, respectively.
So despite the sluggish world economy and threats to the euro, solar and clean energy still have a bullish future in Europe. And while the solar power sector in the EU is still small when compared to conventional industries, the past decade has witnessed year-after-year growth ranging from 40 to 90 percent. With the world’s continued thirst for energy, oil will continue to surge in price, which will lead to solar becoming an even more cost-competitive option. As smaller countries from Bulgaria to Greece and even Slovakia witness the construction of more PV installations, recent troubles in the European solar market will prove to be hiccups in the long run instead of evidence of a market that has flamed out.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo of Erlasee solar field in Germany courtesy Wikipedia.