In 2002, six of the world’s ten largest PV module manufacturers were based in Europe. By 2011, that figure had fallen to zero, as a wave of low-cost Chinese solar panels pushed major European OEMs towards bankruptcy. A last-gasp attempt to hold back this wave through EU anti-dumping import tariffs ultimately failed, and the days of large-scale PV manufacturing in Europe appeared to be over.
But the European solar sector is now fighting back with a range of next-generation products that the new chief executive of SolarPower Europe, Walburga Hemetsberger, says will become industry standards within five to ten years.
The key to the revival of the European PV manufacturing sector, she says, is not trying to beat the Asian OEMs purely on cost.
“The focus should be on research and development,” she tells Recharge. “We have 40% of the [renewables] patents here in Europe, we should get them on the market… and then there’s a whole number of cutting-edge solar products which will be in five, ten years’ time, standard products — the next generation.”
European OEMs can beat Asian manufacturers by introducing new solar products, such as building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), and higher-efficiency panels that win on levelised cost of energy, rather than module price.
“There’s more than 200 [BIPV] products [produced in Europe] and we are really very strong on that — cells integrated in windows, in tiles, in facades,” Hemetsberger explains. “We really see a big potential in BIPV, and by the way, so does the European Commission. We need the right framework for that.”
In March, SPE unveiled its supply-side industrial strategy for solar. Key targets included raising the number of PV manufacturing jobs from about 81,000 to more than 300,000 by 2030; boosting the market uptake of BIPV and floating solar; and by supplying at least 20% of Europe’s electricity demand with solar energy by 2030, “driving the competitiveness of the EU PV supply chain, and therefore job creation and value creation in Europe”.
The strategy also called upon policymakers to “provide an attractive business environment and develop top runner investment programs [ie, for leading companies] for large-scale manufacturing facilities in cutting-edge solar technologies”.
An “attractive business environment” includes tax incentives for solar manufacturing, simplified permitting procedures to develop manufacturing facilities, and increased lending support from European Investment Bank.
Hemetsberger points to the example of Enel Green Power’s 3Sun solar factory in Catania, Sicily, which recently abandoned the thin-film amorphous-silicon (a-Si) panels it had been making and retooled to produce 200MW a year of its innovative high-efficiency bifacial heterojunction technology (HJT) modules.
“It’s a very, very high-end technology module,” says Hemetsberger, who visited the plant in February.
The plant had been producing thin-film a-Si panels with a power-conversion efficiency of 10%. The HJT modules — which feature layers of both a-Si and the more common crystalline-silicon (c-Si) — are now achieving around 20% efficiency, with Enel hoping to increase this to 25% within five years. Standard polysilicon modules produced in China have an efficiency of around 15-17%. By making the panels bifacial — able to absorb energy from both sides of the cells — energy uptake is instantly boosted by 10-15%.
Hemetsberger believes that her predecessor James Watson’s policy of not supporting import tariffs on Chinese PV products was the correct strategy, despite the intense criticism from some European manufacturers such as SolarWorld.
“I fully support what SolarPower Europe has done in the past. And I think that our members still stand fully behind getting rid of trade barriers because that helps the whole industry.
“If you look at SolarPower Europe, one third of our membership is manufacturers. So I think we're very strong on that. We are representing the whole value chain.”
SPE says it also contributing to all three pillars of the EC’s new Clean Energy Industrial Forum — renewables, batteries and buildings.
“I think we have shown very strongly, since 2017, that we are not just, you know, asking for the removal of trade barriers, but that we are doing something concretely to strengthen the industrial base in Europe.”