Europe: future of large scale PV in doubt

SolarPower Europe held its 11th Solar Market Workshop in Brussels this week where the future of European solar markets were discussed in detail by industry participants and analysts. A decidedly uncertain future was delivered during the session: Is there a future for large scale in solar?

"Large scale solar in Europe is basically dead," opined Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) Jenny Chase in a session discussing the future of big PV in the EU. The forthright analyst said that as utility scale PV has the same generation profile as rooftop solar, that it is likely to be squeezed out as distributed generation applications take precedence. Chase, BNEF’s lead solar analyst, also noted that Europe’s peak electricity demand continues to occur during the winter months, making solar PV a poor fit.

"We can use batteries to solve a lot of minor problems, but it won’t solve the problem that peak [electricity] demand occurs in winter," said Chase. She noted that in some markets, such as Chile and Morocco, time-of-day or time-of-year electricity production is being incorporated into large scale renewable tenders to tackle challenges such as this.

It was in emerging PV markets where Enerparc saw a great deal of potential for European project developers in the near term. Enerparc’s Stefan Muller noted that project tenders in Egypt, Dubai, and Jordan present opportunities: "there are barriers, but it is interesting." Muller added however that he does maintain some optimism for the Europe large scale market, in that a project market of over 1.2 GW/a in France and Germany combined still provides prospects for developers.

"It is possible to make money in Germany at €0.08/kWh," said Muller. "It’s fun! The question is now how to move away from markets that have sharp [installation] peaks like the UK. But a 500MW/a market [in one country] is a good market."

Holger Gassner, the head of market and political affairs at utility RWE, noted that while large scale projects are the kinds of investments in which large utilities would be looking to develop, the way the future of big PV in Europe is viewed is somewhat linked to expectations.

"Is there the expectation of many gigawatts of new large scale solar [in Europe] in the future? Then no [there is no future for the sector]," said Gassner. "But there will be the replacement and repowering of old sites. Solar is part of the energy mix and has some advantages over on and offshore wind, and the public acceptance of wind is also a question. Large scale solar [government| tenders also need to add some additional requirements."

The potential to tap public finances for solar development on publically-owned sites was suggested as an opportunity by James Owen, the commercial director at Public Power Solutions.

"Public sector solar deployment in the EU is still at very low levels," said Public Power’s James Owen. "There are certain assets the public sector own that are ideal for solar, like landfill, where there are gigawatts of potential, carparks and park and ride facilities." Owen noted that public funds move slowly and are risk averse, but they also require lower returns on investment. Public Power Solutions has realized 150 MW of projects to date and reports a pipeline of around 400 MW. "Finally the public sector has woken up [to solar]," he concluded.

While utilities may be looking for large projects, First Solar’s Christopher Burghardt reported that it is likely array sizes in the EU will shrink in size. "We see project and system sizes reduce over time," said Burghardt. "We have seen some 500 MW projects happen in the past, but the future, especially in Europe, is 20 MW and below."