2018 was a banner year for solar power in Europe. As in the United States, solar is the fastest growing segment of the energy sector in the European Union and as last summer’s heat wave broke all records – so did solar energy production. Mark Twain was once quoted as saying there are “lies, damned lies – and statistics.” Last year’s numbers show that for solar power in the EU, there’s statistics – and Oh Wow!

For Europe, the extraordinary year for solar came hard on the heels of a stunning 2017 when Europe’s solar market expanded by 28.4% in 2017, as installed capacity reached 98.9 GW across the continent. All of us who follow science, technology, economics (we’re policy wonks…) know that nothing grows at 28.4% in a year, but solar power did.

The great heatwave in the spring and summer of 2018 brought drought with it and while it was terrible news for people, animals and agriculture, solar power generation broke all records to keep Europeans cool, working and returning where the lights worked. It didn’t have to be that way, but the truth is, PV power stepped up when conventional power couldn’t and broke an astounding number of benchmarks in one country after another along the way:

  • In July, German solar power generated an unheard of 6.17 terawatt hours of power;
  • To the north, Denmark got 361 hours of sunshine with a 33% increase in PV production (a record breaker);
  • In the UK (yes – the cloudy, rainy, foggy UK), solar production broke the all-time weekly record between June 21st to the 28th by producing 333 GW of power. For the first time, solar power displaced gas as the #1 source of power in the country.
  • 175,000 Europeans work in the solar industry;
  • They project another 120,000 new jobs by 2030;
  • 40GW solar market growth by 2022 in Europe.

The Dutch had a 75% increase in solar power output in July over the previous year. “Across Europe, records came tumbling down,” observed SolarPower Europe CEO James Watson in a press note. Aurelie Beauvais, SPE’s policy director noted that large-scale solar filled in for a conventional generation as the 2018 European heatwave brought thermal power plants to a standstill.

Hot Potential in Europe: Solar Irradiation and Thermal Solar Collectors, 2016, Million Square Metres
Hot Potential in Europe: solar irradiation and thermal solar collectors, 2016, million square metres. | Click here to view the full-size chart. | Source: Energy Atlas 2018: Figures and Facts about Renewables in Europe, by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / Flickr

The heat and dry weather was the underlying cause for all this. It’s not something to think about for the future – it happened already and it will again, if not in Europe (it will) then somewhere else. The real point if that foresight, planning and Europe’s commitment to solar power stopped much of Europe from going dark. Heat can be deadly and in the UK alone, almost 700 additional deaths were recorded – attributed to the heat.

If the present Administration in the United States has looked back to coal and oil so one segment of rich political donors can continue to extract wealth from the nation at the cost of everyone else, the EU has no such impediment. In June 2018 the EU boosted its ambitious commitment to a clean, renewable energy future with a binding renewable target to 32% by 2030. The continent means to make it stick.

Strategic Thinking in Europe

One of the major reasons for Europe’s surge in solar power is the technology’s place in several forward-thinking strategic plans. There’s new thinking guiding the way in the Old World as they grapple with the big question: How to power Europe in the future. It’s something that’s missing in the United States. A number of international organizations have been created under the EU umbrella. One of them is the Energy Union and its Strategic Energy Technologies Information System (SETIS). They take an expansive, comprehensive approach to assessing Europe’s needs, and study and develop large-scale regional solutions in support of even larger strategic plans with real goals and practical solutions (refreshing – yes?). It isn’t perfect and there will be failures and bumps along the way – but Europe is doing it and the benefits are seen everywhere.

One major effort is the Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP) which is tackling the challenges of power supply across southern Europe and the larger Mediterranean region. The MSP calls for the deployment of 20GW of new renewable energy production by 2020 and SETIS is working on the evolution of new regulations and the international organization requirements to bring this power to market smoothly.

Thinking Differently in the Era of Climate Change

This year’s stats on PV EU are impressive indeed. On the other hand, they are also sobering. Most of us who advocate for solar power are also keenly aware of climate change. The numbers tell us what happened, but maybe the bigger question is “why?”

Europe’s oil, gas and nuclear plants can rise to meet just about any power demand – no matter what the challenge is. Pump in more fuel and Europe gets more power. It’s not any more complicated than that, so that wasn’t the problem. Europe’s heat wave and clear weather meant that there was little rain across the continent and in France and Germany, conventional coal and nuclear power plants didn’t have the water required for cooling and so production was throttled back. That’s the “why.”

Solar power supporters need a more clearly defined understanding of climate change and what it means. Almost every day I get an email about how the polar bear cubs will die. It’s true enough and starvation is a horrifying agony, but that’s not what this is about. Climate change has been on the radar of every military and intelligence service in the world for 30 years. They are unanimous in drawing two conclusions:

  • Climate change is about disruption and war; and
  • Water – not oil, is the strategic resources of the 21stCentury.

Thermal power in any of its forms takes massive amounts of water for cooling to remain in production. Solar power doesn’t. We need to think that way about it.

If most Americans don’t think this way – Europeans do:

Evaluation of the cross-sectoral impacts of changing availability of water due to climate change, land use, urbanisation, demography in Europe and geographical areas of strategic interest for the EU (Africa and the EU’s closest eastern and southern neighbours) by using an integrated approach, including the socio-economic dimension, to improve policy coherence, develop synergies and negotiate trade-offs.

Keeping the Power They Make

European thinking isn’t limited to getting more panels up. Major advances have been made in new storage technologies and the regulations and new business rules needed to open markets for power across the EU. Work is going forward on the digital management of distributed production across the EU grid and to support it with new battery and other technologies. If China has dominated the world’s PV production, Europe means to lead in storage. A lot of the effort is directed at pulling down the barriers to free-up a €250bn a year by 2025 (estimated by InnoEnergy).
In October 2018 the largest energy storage facility on the continent opened at CMI’s Headquarters in Seraing, Belgium. CMI makes industrial boilers and heat recovery steam generators (HRSGs) for concentrated PV power with thermal storage.

Their total system includes a 2 MW PV with 6,500 rooftop and carport panels, and lithium-ion batteries storing 4.2 MW of power.

A View of the Pilsworth Liquid Air Energy Storage System
A view of the Pilsworth Liquid Air Energy Storage system. | Photo: Highview Power

Batteries aren’t the only solution being deployed and some of the technology makes us rethink what is and what isn’t a “battery.” In the UK, the first of its kind “liquid air” storage facility came online in June 2018. The new Liquid Air Energy Storage (LAES for short), has a capacity of 5MW-15MWh and uses electricity to cool regular ambient air (the stuff we breath) down to -320° Fahrenheit in a low-pressure tank. The liquid air gets warmed up by heat exchangers and the expanding gas is used to drive a turbine.

This new system is being built right now by Highview Power in Bury and installed at a landfill near Pilsworth. This technology offers some huge advantages over any other form of storage. The (in-the-ground) tanks are made mostly of steel which has a 10 year or more lifespan. There are no chemicals, no carbon or toxic chemicals are realized.

Europe is forging ahead. The EU is undeterred by current U.S. policies and the Old World is leading the way into the new one with thinking, strategy and innovation.comment

* Cover photo credit: Windwärts Energie GmbH

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