Focusing manufacturing, implementing legislation and tackling a fractured market – takeaways from Intersolar Europe 2024

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The future of European solar manufacturing was a key topic of discussion at last weeks’ Intersolar event. Image: PV Tech.

Last week’s Intersolar Europe 2024 event saw the PV industry’s leaders meet in Munich to discuss the biggest trends in the sector, and plot a course through an industry that many actors said is more uncertain than in previous years. One of our reporters, Will Norman, has already shared a number of takeaways pertaining to perovskites and product quality, and many of the exhibition’s attendees shared further insights on European manufacturing, legislation and the state of Europe as a market.

European manufacturing focus

Much was made of the potential for Europe to expand its solar manufacturing capacity last week, with many attendees casting not unreasonable doubts about Europe’s ability to compete with overseas manufacturers, especially in China, with regard to mass-producing solar modules at a low price. This sentiment echoes earlier concerns raised by the European Solar Manufacturing Council (ESMC), with secretary general Johan Lindhal telling PV Tech Premium that the entire industry faces an existential threat.

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However, a number of attendees suggested that there could be a commercially viable future for locating manufacturing capacity in Europe, if manufacturers invest more heavily in emerging technologies and more tailored solar products, rather than trying to compete with Chinese manufacturing giants on a simple matter of scale.

“We always have the developers and their real applications and situations in mind. And our main focus is to solve their problems,” Franz Ziering, chief sales officer at SunMaxx told PV Tech. SunMaxx generated headlines for unveiling a perovskite tandem module, with a power conversion efficiency of 26.6% at Intersolar, completed in collaboration with cell researcher Oxford PV.

“Quality is always the main starting point, providing a high-efficiency product. We also need to think about the economic stats, that’s why we always talk about the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) and the levelised cost of heat (LCOH).”

“Europe is better [than other markets] in terms of the buyers and project developers, [which are] very professional,” added Ziering. “They are not only thinking about price forecasts or price quality, they are always also thinking about your performance and your reliability and so on. Some markets are more focused on price mainly.”

Ziering’s comments point to a perceived difference in developers operating in China and Europe, with those in the latter thought to be more eager to use products with a high standard of environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance.

With regulations encouraging such compliance in place in European manufacturing, there could be a market for European-made solar products, that comply with high ESG standards, for developers that are willing and able to spend more money on modules, to ensure they are supporting a more sustainable supply chain.

Jan Jacob Boom-Wichers, CEO of French solar manufacturer Holosolis, however, went a step further. When asked if the future of European manufacturing would focus predominantly on tailored solutions and a prioritisation of ESG compliance, he replied “no”.

“I strongly believe that’s not the case,” Boom-Wichers told PV Tech. “Yes, you can have niche markets, but every time you create a niche market, and the niche market becomes interesting, it gets copied and duplicated by other countries, like China.”

Implementing new legislation

Of course, there is a long way to go if Europe, in any capacity, is to match China’s output of solar products. A report from the think tank Ember Climate, published earlier this year, noted that China was responsible for as much as 85% of global solar manufacturing capacity, and Europe will not overturn this in a few short years.

Instead, attendees at the event pointed to the good work that the EU has done, on a continent-wide level, to help create the conditions necessary to address this imbalance in the global solar sector.

“What the EU did, taking into consideration Covid-19 and the invasion of Ukraine, was a real wake-up call, as they came to realise the extremely high reliance on China for everything, from masks to respirators to aspirin,” said Boom-Wichers. “And when the invasion of Ukraine happened, Europe realised how dependent they were on natural gas and oil from Russia and the rest of the non-European oil producing countries.”

He went on to describe European manufacturing as “an extremely exciting space,” and suggested that national interest, and a desire for greater industrial independence, could be a motivating factor in encouraging greater investment into European manufacturing, to reduce the continent’s reliance on Chinese products.

The EU has sought to capitalise on this through a number of initiatives, such as implementing the Net Zero Industries Act (NZIA) and launching new training initiatives for the solar industry, both of which were explored at panel discussions last week.

At the former panel, Joan Groizard, director general of the Spanish Energy Agency (IDEA). even suggested that countries across Europe could benefit from a greater emphasis on public auctions for solar projects, led by national governments. In its Energy Transition Investment Trends 2024 report, Bloomberg New Energy Finance noted that declining public offerings were a significant contributor to declines in renewable energy power investment, with such funding falling from around US$20 billion in 2021 to around US$7 billion in 2023.

Ziering also suggested that the very nature of the event, as a space for decision-makers to discuss such topics, was itself a useful exercise in bringing together the European solar sector, and the policies affecting its future.

“Of course, for the industry, people like to talk openly about the policy issues,” Ziering told PV Tech. “Well, we are working with the industry, we know what is happening, so we are thinking about how our solution can really help people to solve those problems.”

A fractured market

However, commentators agreed that, despite these continent-spanning efforts, Europe remains a fractured market. Towards the end of the conference, Christelle Barnes, UK country manager at SolarEdge and vice chair of Solar Energy UK, told PV Tech that Europe is a “very fragmented” market.

“The portfolios that we have here, on the stand, have to adapt to a very wide range of customers and a very wide range of markets,” said Barnes. “[Europe is] definitely a challenging region [but] things tend to go in cycles.”

Similarly, pushing for greater manufacturing capacity, or creating more jobs, across European solar, is not a homogenous effort with a single goal.

This is especially important considering the wide range of national government policies, and relative market maturities, across the European solar sector. In the latest round of National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs), for instance, Germany is targeting the installation of 215GW of solar capacity by the end of the decade, close to triple the next-most ambitious government, that of Italy. Policies and activities that will benefit Germany will not necessarily benefit Italy, to say nothing of the vast difference in the Germany market and, say, a market such as Slovakia, which is targeting just 1.4GW of capacity in operation by 2030.

“Supply of equipment cannot be predicted in one country or two countries,” said Groizard during the panel discussed earlier. “It should be diversified and it’s good for the European markets, preferably moving to the US markets.”

Boom-Wichers, however, was optimistic that a combination of delicate legislation, and sheer practical necessity, will help Europe navigate the next few uncertain years.

“It’s not a fully homogenous market, but with the NZIA, clearly the rules are becoming homogenous,” said Boom-Wichers, who praised the legislative structure in place, where the EU is aiming to meet 40% of its demand for solar panels with European-made modules by the end of the decade, but has left it to individual national governments how they will expand their module manufacturing and purchasing sectors.

“We must have a way to wean our economy from oil and gas, therefore we must produce the only alternative energy source, solar, which is the cheapest source of energy and the fastest to deploy at large scale. And it has to be made here, otherwise you’re just going from a dependency on non-European fossil fuels to a dependency on non-European solar panels, and, to me, that’s dangerous because we would be giving away our opportunity to have European energy sovereignty.”

26 November 2024
Málaga, Spain
Understanding PV module supply to the European market in 2025. PV ModuleTech Europe 2024 is a two-day conference that tackles these challenges directly, with an agenda that addresses all aspects of module supplier selection; product availability, technology offerings, traceability of supply-chain, factory auditing, module testing and reliability, and company bankability.
11 March 2025
Frankfurt, Germany
The conference will gather the key stakeholders from PV manufacturing, equipment/materials, policy-making and strategy, capital equipment investment and all interested downstream channels and third-party entities. The goal is simple: to map out PV manufacturing out to 2030 and beyond.

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