Europe: The time for large-scale PV is now

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The public is, for the first time, taking it upon itself to participate in addressing climate change, whether through protests to shift policy, or through consumer activism and economic action. Europe’s green wave is showing no signs of slowing down, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that companies will need to evolve their offerings to keep up with demand.

The one industry that is best positioned to benefit from this societal shift is the industry that powers European society. Utility providers have traditionally had a relatively straightforward role in the energy market: deliver electricity to customers. Before the days of acute climate awareness, where that electricity came from had little bearing on whether or not a customer purchased from a particular provider. This is quickly changing.

The digitization of the energy industry is bringing new transparency to the utility business. Desktop or app-based monitoring applications are allowing customers to track where their electricity is coming from, and the growing climate movement is driving demand for that electricity to be clean and renewable. The fact is that transparent, customer-centric applications are becoming the norm and are helping drive the shift to clean energy.

As utilities begin to differentiate themselves through their offerings, there will be an inherent advantage to being able to offer an affordable, green tariff option at scale. The question is not if customers will want such an offer, but instead, at what stage will they opt to find another provider if their current utility cannot meet their needs.

At the top of the agenda for utilities will be ensuring energy security throughout any planned transition. For this reason, proven, bankable generation technologies will be given priority. At the same time, low maintenance costs and long lifetimes will give certain technologies priority over others. New capacity additions should offer essential system services, so grid operators get the most out of a future energy system. Across Europe, solar PV solar has quietly emerged as the leading technology solution for electricity capacity additions, ticking all the boxes for a modern, sustainable energy system.

The IEA recently released a report, forecasting a massive increase in renewable energy deployment in the next five years, calling for a 50% global increase by 2024, primarily driven by solar PV. Falling PV system prices and an increase in remote O&M solutions, allowing plants to operate more autonomously, is helping large-scale PV solar cement its status as the most cost-effective new generation technology. Not only are prices continuing to fall, but the advancement of grid reliability and flexibility services is also helping solar plants deliver value to utilities beyond simple cost savings.

Solar PV has typically played an important role in providing a relatively small percentage of power to the grid, limited significantly by the fact that the technology used to connect utility-scale solar systems to the grid was far less sophisticated than the systems themselves.

Today, large-scale solar is getting increasingly sophisticated, demonstrating its ability to provide dispatchability along with advanced ancillary grid services. It is only a matter of time before energy-only contracts with large-scale PV power plants are supplemented with commercial grid services.

The next evolution will see the emergence of fully dispatchable large-scale solar – a future energy system where PV solar accounts for 80% of the generation capacity is by no means unrealistic. But it is contingent on Europe’s ability to combine scale – such high levels of penetration can only be driven by utility-scale applications – with access to suitable land, and lean administrative and permitting processes.

Employing energy storage and time-shift techniques, solar 3.0 will put solar capacity limits on par with thermal generators, and provide the opportunity to rapidly increase renewable adoption as the world moves towards widespread and decarbonized electrification.

PV’s status as the first choice for new electricity generation capacity in Europe is not just driven by low costs and increasingly robust grid services. As the ultimate goal for new capacity additions is decarbonization of the energy supply, solar PV’s status as the least carbon-intensive technology available will only grow in importance.

Countries such as France are already taking it a step further. By factoring the lifetime carbon footprint of technology into its public tenders, ensuring that large-scale PV projects use components that have a certified low carbon footprint, France is already generating lower carbon solar. In a world where traceability is critical, and customers are better informed than ever before, it may only be a matter of time before they make a clear distinction between clean and cleaner solar.

With utilities entering a period of transformative change as they adapt to meet shifting consumer demand, the opportunity to drive the energy transition in the most sustainable direction is presenting itself. The continually falling price of PV, along with a host of advanced grid integration systems, means that for the first time, decarbonization and profitability can act concurrently as the drivers of the energy transition. As demand for cleaner electricity grows, utilities are in a position to plan for the future and offer customers the cleanest, most cost-effective technology available.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.