Solar's champagne moment must be translated into action

We’ve all started to get back to reality after the momentous events of COP21 in Paris and the unprecedented global agreement to tackle climate change.

It felt for so many months beforehand that we were heading towards another Copenhagen, so we have to praise the French government for delivering on the promises made and putting a little extra sparkle into our festive champagne. Not that it was a solo job — all 195 countries that put their names to the agreement can be commended.

It is important to assess what this means for solar, globally and in Europe.

For a start, the summit saw the launch of three global initiatives.

  • The grand International Solar Alliance, trumpeted by the Indian and French governments — it was exciting to see two powerhouses coming together to hail solar as the source to lead the energy transition — bringing 122 countries together to promote solar uptake.
  • The Terawatt Initiative, which will drive $1trn into the industry.
  • The Global Solar Council, uniting the industry associations of the world.

Solar arrays lit up the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower. You could hardly turn without seeing another PV promotion. Greenpeace’s solar Arc de Triomphe drew criticism from some quarters, but I think it ought to be applauded for its ingenuity. The question now is how all this goodwill can be turned into practical application.

It is clear that businesses and investors are starting to understand the full implications of solar. With falling costs, increasing efficiency and public approval ratings that other technologies can only dream of, it is not hard to understand the business case. The technology is already at grid parity in countries all across the globe and this trend will only increase and intensify. So the economic arguments are starting to hit home, even without a fossil-fuel divestment campaign.

What stands in the way of a sun-fuelled future? The answer is simple: regulation. We can draw on experiences from across Europe to identify that the challenges facing our technology have nothing to do with economics, application or versatility. It is chiefly that governments interfere with the uptake of solar to slow its advance. From Spain to Bulgaria, from the Czech Republic to the UK, it is regulation that puts the brakes on solar. Place trade barriers on top of the red tape, and you create a situation in which solar uptake is held back considerably.

Maintaining trade measures on PV modules and cells entering Europe from China runs contrary to the needs of a continent engaged in energy transition. So this is a year in which the European Commission (EC) must determine whether to keep these measures in place.

It remains unclear whether there has been any benefit from the tariffs, but an EY study last month suggested that removing them would lead to increased demand for solar and the creation of more than 50,000 jobs. In light of that, we can only hope that these regulations are addressed in a way that allows the industry’s full potential to be unleashed.

The EC also has a chance to reverse some of the practices that interfere with the continent’s uptake of solar. It will bring forward a new electricity market design in November that must be ambitious and create the right framework for solar to grow. This means building an electricity system around renewables, and supporting them with flexible sources of energy. This is an absolute pre-requisite for Europe to stand any chance of meeting its pledges in Paris.

The new market design must blow away mechanisms that provide subsidies for technologies such as coal and nuclear. These mechanisms must be exceptions, not the norm. It is counter-intuitive to utter big words on climate change in Paris and then return home to lavish public money on climate-polluting technologies.

A new market built on solar and other flexible renewables will break the mould of baseload ideas and generate a system of a more decentralised, democratic means of generating electricity. This will empower people and allow us all to play our part in the fight against climate change. This also depends, of course, on having the right market price for our technology.

Globally, the outlook for solar remains positive. China and India have huge installation targets and other countries are set to follow suit. Last year was a record for installations and it’s possible that this trend will continue through to 2020. Now that governments have signed up to act on climate change, they must support the means to do so, by encouraging and enabling solar.

James Watson is chief executive of SolarPower Europe, which represents the European solar industry

This piece was published as part of the Thought Leaders series. Recharge’s Thought Leaders Club brings together leading thinkers and participants from the renewable-energy sector to examine the key challenges facing our industry