Is Europe paying the price for its solar leadership? | RenewEconomy

Is Europe paying the price for its solar leadership?

Parts of Europe could be feeling the effects of starting the solar party on their own.


Shrink That Footprint


One of the most curious memes that has developed over the last few years is that the US leads the world in tackling carbon emissions.  Without as much as a breath this is typically followed by a sentence with the word ‘fracking‘.  But if you actually look at the data you can see declining oil use was as big a driver in the cuts.

Looking at data has a nasty habit of skewering memes you see.  US carbon emissions fell by 12.1% between 2005 and 2012 (see above).  Over the same period in the EU28 emissions fell by 12.4%.  So while both have done very well the EU edged it since 2005, the year that the US happens to use as its baseline.

For most countries of course the baseline for emissions in 1990, the one from the Kyoto Protocol.  With 1990 as a baseline US emissions figures are less flattering, up 7.4%.  Europe is down 16.7%.  So much for that meme then.

One of things with trying to lead on climate change is that it really is a scrappy business.  Europe has done well on efficiency standards, but struggled to get its emissions trading smoothly off the ground.  It’s doing well on fuel economy in cars, but been slow to deal with particulates from vehicles. On solar, it really looks to be paying the price of being a solar leader.  Let me show you what I mean.

The other day I was reading a piece by Giles over at the excellent RenewEconomy which showed a graph of global PV module demand.  The stacked bar chart for each year was hiding some fascinating data, so I’ve cut a new chart to show you what’s happening in the five main solar countries over the last few years.


For Germany and Italy this graph looks incredibly painful to me.

If you know anything about the cost of solar you’ll realize that the shape of the German and Italian demand curves a very expensive affair.  Those gigawatts installed from 2010 and 2011 could be installed at a fraction of their cost today.  Given the falling costs of solar the ramp up in China and the US looks much more natural. This begs a question.

Has cloudy Germany done the heavy lifting, with its high feed-in tariffs and manufacturing investment, thus allowing the likes of China, the US and Japan to install so much solar today?  Or did Germany push to hard too early on, leaving itself with subsidy bill that is curtailing current investment in solar?

I’m not really sure to be honest, it’s a bit easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight.  But I still have the feeling that it is a bit of both. Maybe something else is at play?  I am sure that the shape of that curve in Germany looks eye-wateringly expensive.

Is this the price of solar leadership?


Source: Shrink That Footprint. Reproduced with permission.


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  1. Chris Fraser 7 years ago

    There would be such a thing as a cost for leadership. As a result we suspect the Coalition is exceedingly afraid of it. But we could also suggest that while Germany and Italy have maxed out their available PV real estate and allowed everyone else the benefit of new technology provoked by them, they are hatching a plan for more efficient cells. Eventually their capacity will double, and they may be leaders again.

  2. Peter Castaldo 7 years ago

    Someone always has to do the hard work. I hear so many Germans talk about how backward we are in Australia when it comes to renewables. I know they take much pride in their collective achievement until you can stick a dollar on those benefits you can’t measure the real value of being a first mover.

  3. patb2009 7 years ago

    There is a price to being an early adopter, but if you develope the technology
    you get to sell it to others later. If Germany masters all the tech for managing Solar, they get to sell management systems world wide.

  4. Alen 7 years ago

    Leadership should never be cheap or easy to obtain, and their forward thinking strategy (in regards to clean/renewable energy and GHG reduction) has earned them the respect many can only dream of. Their legacy during this time will be one to be proud of, something which we in Australia (judging from the current situation) unfortunately won’t be sharing.

  5. Ronald Brakels 7 years ago

    Germany’s actions have saved lives. One can’t point a finger and say that a particular person’s life was saved, but stochastically speaking a great many lives have and will be saved by Germany getting solar prices and CO2 emissions down earlier than what otherwise would have happened and they have a right to be proud of what they have accomplished.

    That said, while Germany is taking a little break from installing solar at the rate they used to, the amount of low cost solar capacity they will install from this point will be vast and will dwarf the amount of solar they currently have installed. This is because at a dollar a watt or less which is what the cost of installed solar is heading for, solar electricity will beat everything else during the day. So while they did pay for a small to moderate amount of expensive solar early on, they will install a huge amount of cheap solar from here on in.

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