European politicians may agree on the need to achieve renewable energy targets without sacrificing industrial and technological independence, but not on the means to go about achieving this.

A panel of candidates for upcoming European Parliament elections taking part in a debate at the WindEurope event in Bilbao reached a consensus that the levels of dependence on Chinese imports found in the solar industry should not be repeated when it comes to wind energy, but on little else.

“Solar received a lot of support in the beginning, but manufacturing capacity has now moved almost completely outside the EU. We needed to keep at least part of the value chain here,” said Pilar del Castillo Vera, of European People's Party, Spain.

“It seems too easy to forget now that when we agreed 2020 on targets for solar power also included a target of keeping at least 20% of the manufacturing activities here.”

Some of the views expressed on the WindEurope panel characterised China’s position as little less than malignant.

“Over 90% of solar equipment comes from China and we are very much dependent. If solar and wind are the future sources of energy, controlling them means power,” said Michael Bloss of the Greens-European Free Alliance, Germany.

“So China is very much interested in us not having a European solar industry and pushing panels into Europe in a way that will destroy what little industry we have left.”

Bloss advocated active solutions to protect European industry and argued that “sticking to a free trade mentality” would not provide this.

Nicolás Gonzalez Casares a Spanish member of the Socialists and Democrats grouping, said it was important to differentiate wind from solar, and to take a pragmatic view.

“A lot of steel (for wind industries) comes from China. We need to ensure some EU content, but we cannot be naïve if we want an orderly transition. It should not be our objective to stop all panels, let alone all steel coming from China, but we need to do more,” he said.

Casares welcomed the designation of EU funds for clean tech resilience but said much more will be needed.

'Mountain of debt'

Not all politicians welcomed this. “We can’t build an economy on a mountain of debt, and leave this for the next generation. I am not favour of bringing more money and creating more debt,” said Robert Roos of the European Conservatives and Reformists, Netherlands

Bloss interpreted these views as based on hostility to the green deal promoted by EU institutions.

“If you look at the (US) Inflation Reduction Act with investments of $430bn and the $820bn that China’s invested in clean tech in 2023 you can see that Europe will be left behind if it is not investing," he said.

"An industrial plan must face up to the fact that there is now a race to become the leader in clean tech technologies, and to decide who will produce the wind turbines, the electrolysers the batteries,” he said.

Roos attacked what he said was the ideological roots of European Union policy toward the energy transition.

“We made a mistake. We started our energy transition from the premise that we should phase out all our reliable energy sources without a credible plan. Instead there was just ideology,” he said, arguing that dependence on China for EVs, solar or wind components is a result of this.

If solar is seen as a failure, we can say wind is still a success, with most of the value chain here.

“If we face de-industrialisation, it is understandable that the European Commission looks at import tariffs and considers raw materials as part of this, but it doesn’t make sense if we don’t think of solutions for how to empower a competitive industry. This means a business plan, based on risk evaluation and not ideology,” he added.

Cristina Pruna, of Renew Europe, Romania, provided a middle line. “If solar is seen as a failure, we can say wind is still a success, with most of the value chain here. If we want to allege that state support and subsidies means China is not respecting fair trade, then there are instruments for us to use,” she said.

“But at the same time I don’t believe we should engage in a competition of subsidies because in the end it is the consumer will pay and we do not know if what we are financing has a real business case or not.

Pruna suggested it is better for Europe to focus on what it does well.

“Of course this can include support such as incentives or making permitting easier. But I don’t think Europe should try and pick winners or keep losers alive,” she said.

On the other hand, Pruna was one of two voices on the panel to question the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels, arguing that the country wants to exploit its remaining natural gas resources to meet domestic expectations and contribute to energy security for neighbours like Moldova.

She argued that politicians should be aware of a growing sentiment that Europe is “asking for too much”.

Pruna, like Roos, also advocated investment in new nuclear power technology to boost the supply of dispatchable baseload power available to European grid systems.