Europe's demand for electricity is increasing and this power will have to come from more varied sources – including solar, which is no longer a niche product, writes leading industry figure
As Europe considers the best way forward in implementing its economic and environmental priorities, we should remember one thing: people want solar power. Even in tough economic times, the global market for solar photovoltaic technology has continued to grow, breaking records year after year. Indeed, PV is no longer a niche product. It is an increasingly important source of electricity generation, a technology on the way to becoming mature and mainstream. This means we have to start thinking differently about it.
For Europe's electricity system, the coming decades will bring a whole new world. Achieving Europe's ambitious climate goals will require an almost complete decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2050, due to the difficulty of cutting C02 emissions in other non-energy sectors. This will have important implications for the continent's entire power system. The rise of variable renewable sources, including PV, presents challenges for electricity grid operators. But in many ways PV is already providing solutions, meeting a growing share of electricity demand at increasingly competitive cost without creating a strain on the European power system.
Under all scenarios envisioned for the coming decades, PV will play a key role in Europe's electricity mix – covering about 15 per cent or, under a paradigm shift scenario, up to 25 per cent of demand in Europe by 2030. It is time to take the next step in the industry's evolution. As it becomes a mature, mainstream technology, PV will need to integrate seamlessly into the electricity grid. Yes, this will require some changes from grid operators, from policy-makers and from the industry itself. But the challenges are not insurmountable. Solutions to enable a high penetration of PV are achievable and, in many cases, already exist. For too long, systems capabilities have been underestimated.
Photovoltaic electricity is decentralised and can be produced close to where it is consumed. Furthermore, it has a strong seasonal match with wind: these two energy sources together can provide up to 45 per cent of Europe's electricity needs in 2030. When viewed together – and when considered from a Europe-wide perspective rather than a local or national one – they provide realistic solutions to the technical challenges involved in integrating this large share of renewable electricity. In any case, these solutions are achievable, especially when combined with tools to increase the flexibility of the electricity system, such as storage and demand side management.
Large-scale integration of PV in the power system is possible to a greater extent than many have expected, even if some technical issues will have to be addressed. Facilitating this will require a closer collaboration among transmission system operators, distribution system operators, and conventional and renewable players in order to identify cost-effective solutions. As Europe plans investments in new energy infrastructure, stakeholders should seek an integrated approach in which modification of the electricity system and development of the infrastructure are considered together.
Such an approach requires achieving four key policy goals: create a continuum among TSOs, DSOs and distributed generation; increase overall system flexibility; implement a new approach to overcome bottlenecks in the distribution grid; and insure a fair financing of all parties. Europe's electricity demand is increasing. In the context of Europe's decarbonisation goals, this power will have to come from more variable sources. As European policy-makers consider their options for investing in new and more efficient grid infrastructure, they should take into account the benefits that PV is already producing and, more importantly, plan for the greater benefits it is capable of producing in the future.
Reinhold Buttgereit is the secretary general of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association. Its report Connecting the Sun is available here