The policy or political side to Europe’s largest and most important R&D focused conference, EU PVSEC has been beating the same drum for several years and this year’s event in Hamburg is no different.
The plenary session topics have not really changed for the last three years, nor have the keynote speakers and panel members, in many respects.
The main policy message remains focused on tapping the EU to continue to support the PV industry within the nation states and Europe as a general region.
The panel discussion moderated by IEA’s Paolo Frankl, Head of Renewable Energy Division seemed well rehearsed but the theme remains the same as last year, when I wrote that the European solar sector wanted to capitalise on the EU energy transformation.
Of course that transformation is driven by politics and a dysfunctional group of members that strategically depend on certain energy sources as diverse as coal, nuclear power, hydro, PV, wind and a renewable mix. Some are driving change like Germany, while others remain in the dark ages and some like the UK don’t know where they are.
No surprise then that it was hard to gather any evidence that the European PV industry was getting anywhere in building a business within the energy transformation.
Granted this isn’t something that looks like gaining meaningful momentum like the dotcom boom of old but talking about transformations could take much longer than the dotcom boom and subsequent bust before anything actually happens, but hey that’s the EU…right?
Energy storage was touted, smart grids and smart city grids too but there were a number of previous EU government support requirements that are already losing ground.
One of those is for the repatriation of PV manufacturing after a major collapse across the supply chain resulting in bankruptcies, consolidation and exits, which is something that has continued in the European sector for four years.
The last man standing with any meaningful manufacturing in Europe is SolarWorld. However, the company is in recovery mode form near financial collapse and trails heavily behind major rivals with the only major market it serves with growth being the US.
Efforts announced around EU PVSEC in 2013 by the Fraunhofer ISE to propose a new European 1GW plus (x-GWp) manufacturing facility along Airbus business lines has waned, according to Prof. Eicke Weber at a press conference at Hamburg.
Other than the PV equipment sector, which has been heavily impacted but is now in recovery mode as a new technology buy cycle has been underway since 2014, the rest of the European supply chain has been severely impacted as without an international business footprint little capital expenditure remains in Europe.
Government support at the nation level has been heavily curtailed, Spain, Germany, Italy and most recently the UK, resulting in a shift for the European PV industry to head to the EU for salvation.
The knock-on effect has been the dwindling demand for industry research projects, despite funds from German authorities and EU specific projects such as Horizon.
To keep PV R&D in Europe, Europe needs PV manufacturing and the jobs associated with it.
Dependence on the downstream energy revolution as a saviour for R&D activities is highly speculative and requires a coherent, connected dots approach in Europe. Something yet to be seen in many examples of manufacturing industry demise in the last few decades in Europe, why would history not repeat itself in respect to the European PV industry?