Europe can be 'proud' of its solar energy policy
By Philip Ebels
Europe today may not enjoy the envy of the world as it continues to struggle with debts and deficits, but when it comes to solar energy, according to one US entrepreneur, Europe can be proud of itself.
It is not by chance that the old continent today is harnessing more solar energy than the rest of the world combined. It is by virtue of policy choices, such as subsidies and binding targets.
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"Policy support has been crucial to getting photovoltaics to this place in its development," according to industry association Epia.
Danny Kennedy, founder of California-based solar company Sungevity and former Greenpeace activist, agrees. “The policy has clearly worked,” he told EUobserver.
“Europe can be proud of the choices it has made,” he added.
One of those choices, in 2009, was to set binding renewable energy targets for each EU member state to reach by 2020.
This led many countries to introduce some sort of subsidy system.
But 2020 is approaching fast and some are calling for new targets to be set for the year 2030.
“It is about providing certainty to investors. Twenty-twenty no longer is long-term,” says Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout.
He chides the European Commission for its "very soft" attitude. The executive says it recognises the need for new targets but is considering dropping those for renewable energy, leaving only those for CO2 reduction. In this way, nuclear energy would count as well.
“Work is now beginning on what mix of policy instruments is appropriate,” commission energy spokesperson Marlene Holzner said.
Meanwhile, member states are cutting back on short-lived subsidies, creating what the solar panel industry calls "boom-and-bust cycles".
"There isn't a country in Europe that hasn't changed its [subsidy] law in the last two years," said Martin Simonek, renewable energy analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Many have simply been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new installations, as the price of solar panels continues to tumble and increasingly subsidies are something of a bonus on top of a good investment.
Still, without "the right policies in place", Epia warns, "the market [in Europe] will collapse".
The association, like all renewable energy enthusiasts, is keen to point out the hidden subsidies for traditional energy sources, such as oil and gas, whose infrastructure is often partly paid for by the state.
"Just as it was crucial to helping develop all other energy sources [...], the [solar] sector needs [subsidies] to finish closing the competitiveness gap," it says in its 2012 global market outlook.