There is a silver lining to Europe’s energy crisis. Out of necessity, the continent has ramped up its solar energy expansion into overdrive and is set to beat even the most optimistic pre-war projections. The World Economic Forum reports that a whopping 18 out of 27 countries in the European Union set new records for solar power generation between May and August of this year. Of course, the increase in solar isn’t enough on its own to solve the continent’s crushing energy crisis, but it’s a hopeful – and so far financially fruitful – advancement for both the economy and the climate.
This year’s annual analysis from Norwegian renewable energy firm Statkraft projects that European solar capacity will see an average yearly increase of between 45GW and 52GW leading up to 2030. This post-invasion estimate is significantly higher than the 2021 estimate which projected a 33GW increase per year. The report goes on to predict an ongoing explosion of the solar industry, which it projects will account for nearly 80% of global power generation in 2050.
The dramatic uptick in solar energy production has already saved European countries $29 billion just over the summer months, according to data analysis from energy think tank Ember. Without this extra addition to the energy mix, this money would have otherwise been spent on ultra-expensive natural gas imports, says the report.
Natural gas and energy prices in general were already high as Europe and the rest of the world struggled to bounce back economically from the pandemic, and then Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine sent prices soaring to crisis levels as supply chain interruptions and sanctions against the Kremlin sent tidal waves through the global energy sector. Experts had warned for years that Europe’s increasing reliance on Russian natural gas to keep the lights on (Germany, for example, bought more than half of its total natural gas from Russia) put the continent’s energy security at risk, which proved to be all too true.
The boost in solar energy is good omen not just for Europe’s ability to make it through this winter, but also for an energy future which is no longer dependent on Russian fossil fuels, and therefore no longer subject to Putin’s influence nor vulnerable to his volatility. “Europe is heading towards a very difficult winter, probably two years of a very difficult adjustment with a lot of economic pain. But then Europe is essentially going to become more independent with a more diversified mix,” Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit, was recently quoted by CNBC in an article that asserted the bloc’s dependence on Russia is ‘nearly over.’
There is some concern, however, that Europe is essentially pivoting from supporting one resource-rich despotic regime to another as the continent turns to China to meet its exploding demand for photovoltaic technology and particularly solar panels. “The numbers are reflected in the performance of domestic PV companies,” reports the Global Times. “For example, Tongwei Group on Friday said that its revenue in the first three quarters reached 102.084 billion yuan ($14.09 billion), a year-on-year gain of 118.6 percent.” While the European Union, freshly and poignantly aware of the dangers of relying too much on any one fairweather ally for critical nodes of energy production, is “attempting to decouple from China's PV supply chain,” China’s solar panels are just too cheap to be ignored.
This is not to say that every country should be energy-independent. On the contrary, there are powerful arguments for creating and maintaining strong economic ties with other nations. The ultimate lesson to be learned from the current energy crisis is to diversify. Resilience is akin to diversity and redundancy, and energy security hinges on having lots of alternative energy sources and technologies to fall back on when – not if – there is a shock. While solar is a particularly cost-effective, efficient, and climate-friendly option, other renewable energies – and trade relationships with multiple clean-energy tech exporters – must be developed in tandem with solar in order to meet climate goals and shore up energy security.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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