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Electronics Production | March 04, 2009

German/European investment in solar power delivers market leadership

“We (the US) invented solar technology, but we've fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it,” said Barack Obama, in his address to a joint session of the U.S. congress last week. Indeed, these nations have moved ahead of the USA, with Germany holding the lead in this fast-growing alternative energy market due the nation’s and Europe’s long-term commitment to solar power, according to iSuppli.
“Europe’s early and enthusiastic embrace of solar energy is paying off, with the region leading in production of Photovoltaic (PV) cells, potentially paving the way for a 300 billion euro savings in electricity costs,” said Dr. Henning Wicht, senior director and principal analyst for photovoltaics at iSuppli. “European companies supplied 27.4% of global PV cells in terms of wattage in 2008, allowing it to slightly exceed China’s total of 25.8%, and handily surpassing Japan at 16.2% and the United States at 13.7%.”

The attached figure presents iSuppli’s estimate of PV cell production by region in 2008, based on wattage.


“Beyond leading in the production of PV cells, Europe is by far the world’s largest market for solar installations,” Wicht added. “This hasn’t happened by accident, as European governments, research institutions and industry players during the last two decades have worked in close coordination to reach this point.”

The underlying driver for this effort was a desire to wean the European economies off hydrocarbon-based electricity sources while creating jobs and establishing a new industry capable of competing on the global stage. During 2008, more than 80% of new worldwide PV capacity was installed in Europe. Germany and Spain accounted for 84% of Europe’s installed PV capacity during the year.

Feeding solar demand
As the Obama administration considers how to boost the U.S. solar market, it may want to look at the main factor behind Europe’s leadership in this area: feed-in-tariffs. Feed-in-tariffs are incentives that allow entities that feed the grid with solar energy to receive premium pricing, thus making the Return On Investment (ROI) on PV installations more attractive.

These incentives are starting to slow somewhat in 2009, especially in Spain’s case. However, they have successfully served their purpose of driving down prices by building a large-scale, competitive PV supply chain, according to Wicht.

Energy week
During this month’s Sustainable Energy Week event in Brussels, the EU Commission presented the Strategic European Technology Plan for Renewable Energy. Solar plays a strategic part of the plan and it will generate 15 percent—12 percent by PV electricity and 3 percent by concentrating solar thermal systems—of the region’s electricity demand by 2020.

To support its member states in achieving these binding targets, the EU Commission is fostering public/private partnerships to more quickly deploy solar energy. Large solar power plants, urban integration—i.e. solar cities—and transnational rural electrification will help accelerate solar energy deployments.

Deployment difficulties
While rapidly decreasing prices make solar more economically attractive in many countries, deployment may become the real bottleneck. To achieve the goal of 12% PV solar energy supply, several things must change, according to Anton Milner, chief executive officer of Q-Cells, and spokesman of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA). These changes are:
• Grid management must be capable of accommodating a large supply of solar power during the daytime.
• Efficient storage solutions must be developed.
• Governments must foster utility companies to prepare for greater solar energy production.
• Milner and his team estimate that Europe will save up to 300 billion euros by switching to 12 percent of PV solar power by 2020. Cost savings will be due to the fact that solar installations are cheaper than any nuclear or coal facility and that the fuel for PV systems—i.e. sunshine—is free.

Shining bright
The world’s top producer of PV cells in 2008 was Q-Cells of Germany. REC of Norway is another large global player and perhaps the most vertically integrated because it supplies everything, from the polysilicon raw material, to cell and module manufacturing, to system installation services. SolarWorld of Germany and BP Solar of the United Kingdom are examples of European cell/module producers that have sought to leverage their success in Europe and have invested in the emerging U.S. market to try and to take advantage of invigorated government incentives there.

As PV demand expands around the world in the coming years, iSuppli expects European companies will continue to play a major role.

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