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OPINION: EU must take inspiration from solar's achievements

In 1999, the EU started drafting the first legislative ideas for the promotion of renewable energy. Discussion ranged from seriously investing in renewables to halting any serious development. 

Those with ambitious ideas and belief in renewable energy were often portrayed as idealistic, stupid or dreamers.

When debating a possible target for solar in Europe the aspiration was to reach 3GW by 2010. I have to confess that at the time, when I had just started working in the renewable-energy industry, I thought that this was a rather big number, an unrealistic target. I was, of course, completely wrong.

This year, we are celebrating an incredible milestone; 100GW of installed solar power in Europe. This is a tremendous achievement, far beyond most people’s expectations.

Europe is still the number one region in the world when it comes to installed capacity, which is great, but if we want to maintain our front-running role we have to make important changes quickly.

The European solar market is shrinking; development is seriously slowing down.

After many years of important legislation for the promotion of renewables we now see that decision-makers are shying away from continuing the good work they started.

The European Commission is working on a major energy package, including the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive, possibly the Emissions Trading System, energy-efficiency legislation and market design. If this package does not set the right conditions for the growth of solar, but instead tries to protect the past, we will have a big problem.

Everyone is talking about the bright future ahead for solar, a huge hype is portrayed, but the facts speak to a different reality. We are still thinking about ways to “integrate” smart, clean, high-tech, sustainable energy sources such as solar into a 100-year-old system of dirty, inflexible and unsustainable sources. We must stop thinking this way.

The modern telecommunications industry would not exist today if we believed the old guys who defined mobile telephony as “something with longer cables”. Instead they built modern infrastructure for transformational technologies such as smartphones.

This is exactly what we need in the energy sector: a seismic shift. Standing still on legislation at this moment would be a step backwards, risking serious delays in our path to a clean energy future.

Policymakers must take action and outline a new design in the way energy markets are regulated, so that they are fit for variable sources like wind and solar on one side and flexible opportunities such as batteries and demand-side response on the other.

The entire legislative package should be designed with the underlying assumption that the future looks very different than the past. And for a start, it needs to focus on the phase-out of coal.

This all needs to be carefully planned, socially acceptable and safe from an energy-supply perspective.

It may sound difficult, but such fundamental changes are possible within a decade — we must take courage and inspiration from what the PV industry has achieved.

Oliver Schäfer is president of SolarPower Europe, and market development and policy director at SunPower, the California PV manufacturer

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