A 20% solar electricity ambition and 30 million roofs for Europe


pv magazine: You have now been with SolarPower Europe for four weeks – what is your impression?

Walburga Hemetsberger: I’m very happy to have started at SolarPower Europe at a time when the European solar business is booming. I have a fantastic team who have helped me to a great extent in my first weeks. Many exciting opportunities lie ahead but we must also prepare for the challenges. I’m looking forward to tackling these challenges together with the team and members of SolarPower Europe.

You’ve come from the traditional energy industry, the Austrian utility Verbund AG. What was your task there?

You can call it traditional however it is producing mainly hydropower. At Verbund, I was working in the renewable sector, focusing on hydropower and also green hydrogen. During the last 10 years I was working as head of the EU Verbund representation office in Brussels. I was also a board member of Hydrogen Europe, in charge of energy transition solutions for two years. Altogether I have been in Brussels for almost 20 years now, and I have built a strong and resilient network in this time. I worked with DG Competition [the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission] at the beginning of my career and in banking, so I also have experience in sustainable finance.

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To look ahead, what are the main challenges and topics you want to bring forward?

By 2030, we want to ensure that 20% of Europe’s electricity demand is powered by solar. A 20% target would translate into more than half a million jobs by 2030. In terms of challenges, we are now working to ensure that EU member states put in place ambitious national climate and energy plans to support further solar growth. Moreover, we are looking to reduce barriers to the huge and untapped potential of corporate sourcing and power purchase agreements (PPAs) in Europe. This includes allowing for proper functioning cross-border guarantees of origin schemes. A top priority is our industrial strategy for solar in Europe. We are reinforcing our work with the European Commission to put in place an industrial strategy to support a strong and competitive solar sector.

Do you have studies which underline the job numbers?

Yes, we commissioned an EY [Ernst & Young] study Solar PV Jobs & Value Added in Europe in 2017, which produced this job figure.

How does this 20% compare with the EU 2050 vision?

From our perspective, the EU could aim higher. Solar will have a much higher share in the electricity mix than most analysts forecast. The Finnish Lappeenranta University finds in its modelling that solar will become the dominant source of energy by 2050 with a 69% share in the electricity mix. Likewise, Bloomberg NEF’s New Energy Outlook anticipates that in a scenario reaching around 87% renewables in Europe in 2050, solar will have a 36% share – equal to 1.4 TW. We are currently undertaking our own 2050 study and look forward to working with the European Commission to achieve a climate-neutral EU by 2050.

What are the main obstacles to reaching the 20% goal in 2030?

We need a comprehensive industrial strategy and tailored support across the entire solar value chain. For example, we are advocating for more than 30 million solar roofs by 2030, but we need some support to achieve this. We are inspired by very successful rules which we see in other regions, for example in California and in Tübingen, in Germany. There they have obligatory rules for new buildings to install solar roofs.

For this you have to convince the politicians. This is maybe the hardest challenge?

It will be a challenge, but we believe that we will get a lot of support for this proposal from society at large. According to a 2018 European Social Survey, solar has the highest level of public support in Europe, 89% of European citizens are in favor of solar. The high approval ratings from EU citizens will help us to boost small scale PV. Moreover, we need to take urgent measures to combat climate change. More solar roofs are an important element to climate action. Utility-scale PV also needs to be fast-tracked to meet our climate and energy targets. We have to remove barriers to utility-scale solar in Europe by eliminating limitations on plant sizes where they currently exist, and allowing direct access to the transmission network, not only the distribution grid. For example, in German tenders, PV plants are only allowed up to a size of 10 MW. This is a barrier. We recently launched our Grid Intelligent Solar report and want to engage with the European TSOs [transmission system operators] much more closely. The report shows that solar is not a burden for the grid, as previously perceived, but that it can add value to the grid and help integrate solar and renewables. Using advanced power electronics together with storage, we can provide services to the grid which are very valuable to TSOs. In the future, tendering rules should include the smartness of plants. By this we mean that tender requirements for new solar capacity should value flexible dispatch capabilities, grid services and plant controls.

Concerning the size limitation, I also hear other voices, particularly in Germany, which warn that larger plants could lower the acceptance of solar in the neighborhood and in general. What do you think of this argument?

Obviously, we shouldn't compete on land. But there are very nice examples where PV has an additional value. For example, when you look at the former coal regions in Europe, there are mining areas that are no longer suitable for agricultural use, where solar farms can be installed. There is already a 4 MW PV farm on a former coal mining area in the German state of Saarland. There are examples in Hungary and in the UK as well. With regard to agriculture, when you talk about acceptance, there are more and more very interesting projects where you can leverage synergies between agriculture and PV. It is a good synergy as the solar plants provide shade. We have some members who are already investing heavily in this area.

Obviously, such plants are more expensive than when you go without agriculture. So it is a political decision what society wants to spend in order to save land. Do you already have ideas about how to make such plans happen? Would you opt for specific tenders for agricultural PV?

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We are currently in the process of opening a workstream on agriculture and solar because we see the huge potential and we see the interest of our members. That’s one of the key issues we will tackle in this workstream.

To come back to the question of how to convince policymakers, your predecessor James Watson said that you will have to position solar in a very positive way in front of the new European Commission and parliament. Seeing the political trends in Europe and the strength of populist movements, will the European solar industry be confronted with a more adverse political environment?

We would very much want to see a European Parliament and European Commission who work in the same constructive way on the European project. From our perspective, the work of the current European Commission and the parliament was very positive. We want to highlight in the next weeks how instrumental a constructive EU is for the solar business. Anticipating a proactive European Parliament and commission in the next term, I will be delighted to engage with new policymakers coming to Brussels about all the benefits and opportunities that solar offers.

You have a strong network and background in distributed generation competition. In what sense can this help to promote solar in the coming years?

My experience is relevant to the revision of the European Commission’s state aid guidelines on energy and environment. We recently met with DG Competition and the deputy head of the unit, who are working on these guidelines. They are evaluating what was successful and what needs to be improved upon. We want to work together with them in this process. At the moment we are collecting the views and opinions of our members on various topics, for example on tenders, and will submit their feedback to DG Competition throughout this process.

Can the first subsidy-free projects which are financed with a PPA be an argument to reject subsidy schemes for solar?

The tendering process has been initiated by DG Competition and DG Energy [the EU Directorate-General for Energy] to make sure that the lowest-cost technology wins. It is a very competitive instrument. It is evident in the tenders which have already been undertaken that subsidies are decreasing. But it depends on the region and the projects. Let’s not forget that fossil fuels still get more subsidies, thus it wouldn’t make sense to altogether remove subsidy schemes for solar until there is a level playing field.

You mentioned the need for an industrial policy. Do you include manufacturing?

The industrial strategy is all about manufacturing and strengthening the manufacturing base in Europe. We see different approaches. First, we need to boost the industrial base in Europe by creating the right business environment for solar. This will mean introducing tax schemes and financing possibilities via investEU and the European Investment Bank. Second, administrative barriers have to be reduced, land and cheap electricity will need to be accessible. We have such a rich innovative landscape in Europe – 40% of the patents in the solar PV industry are still registered in Europe, deriving from European research and development. We have to bring these ideas into the market. One way of doing this is through front runner programs.

So learning from China and their front runner program for advanced modules?

There are front runner programs all over the world. The EU could pick the best examples and see how we can have a very strong front runner program in Europe as well.

These ideas are not totally new, the industry has been asking for such concepts for a while. Do you see an option they could materialize now?

I think there is an urgency to make it happen. I truly believe that the next European Commission and the next parliament should have a focus on industrial strategy for different parts of the industrial base of Europe. One of the focal points should be on PV, given the growth potential we have. It should be a key priority for the new stakeholders coming to Brussels this year.

There are already discussions about establishing a CO² footprint requirement, which would make it easier for European companies to compete. It has been, for example, mentioned by the European Solar Manufacturing Council, another organization which wants to bring forward production in Europe. Some call it the phoenix of Prosun, the organization that argued for tariffs on imports. What do you think about it?

I heard about preparations for such an organisation. But as I’m here only for four weeks now, I haven’t heard anything concrete regarding what they are proposing. I can only tell you that one third of our members are manufacturers, at different stages of the value chain – and they are European market leaders in their field. Therefore, when we present an industrial strategy it is with their input. We are open to discuss our recommendations and CO² footprint criterion with various stakeholders.

Could you imagine to make a CO² footprint criterion a prerequisite, for example, in tenders, comparable to what is done in France?

We are currently in discussions regarding the CO² footprint criterion and will update you on this topic once we have concluded our discussions.

Interview by Eckhart Gouras and Michael Fuhs

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