Is Europe Paying the Price for Its Solar Leadership?


One of the most curious memes that has developed over the last few years is that the US leads the world in tackling carbon emissions.  Without as much as a breath this is typically followed by a sentence with the word ‘fracking‘.  But if you actually look at the data you can see declining oil use was as big a driver in the cuts.

Looking at data has a nasty habit of skewering memes you see.  US carbon emissions fell by 12.1% between 2005 and 2012 (see above).  Over the same period in the EU28 emissions fell by 12.4%.  So while both have done very well the EU edged it since 2005, the year that the US happens to use as its baseline.

For most countries of course the baseline for emissions in 1990, the one from the Kyoto Protocol.  With 1990 as a baseline US emissions figures are less flattering, up 7.4%.  Europe is down 16.7%.  So much for that meme then.

One of things with trying to lead on climate change is that it really is a scrappy business.  Europe has done well on efficiency standards, but struggled to get its emissions trading smoothly off the ground.  It’s doing well on fuel economy in cars, but been slow to deal with particulates from vehicles. On solar, it really looks to be paying the price of being a solar leader.  Let me show you what I mean.

The other day I was reading a piece by Giles over at the excellent RenewEconomy which showed a graph of global PV module demand.  The stacked bar chart for each year was hiding some fascinating data, so I’ve cut a new chart to show you what’s happening in the five main solar countries over the last few years.


For Germany and Italy this graph looks incredibly painful to me.

If you know anything about the cost of solar you’ll realize that the shape of the German and Italian demand curves a very expensive affair.  Those gigawatts installed from 2010 and 2011 could be installed at a fraction of their cost today.  Given the falling costs of solar the ramp up in China and the US looks much more natural. This begs a question.

Has cloudy Germany done the heavy lifting, with its high feed-in tariffs and manufacturing investment, thus allowing the likes of China, the US and Japan to install so much solar today?  Or did Germany push to hard too early on, leaving itself with subsidy bill that is curtailing current investment in solar?

I’m not really sure to be honest, it’s a bit easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight.  But I still have the feeling that it is a bit of both. Maybe something else is at play?  I am sure that the shape of that curve in Germany looks eye-wateringly expensive.

Is this the price of solar leadship?

  • Peter ritchie

    Hey Lindsay,
    Thanks for another great post. I would say that the answer to your thesis question is a definite ‘yes’, the EU is likely taking a hit for having done much of the heavy lifting during the 2010-2012 period. However, thank goodness, for the sake of the rest of the world. I think the early adopters in the EU gave real momentum to the ongoing solar revolution taking place in other parts of the globe. It’s unfortunate that the policy makers involved didn’t get the balance right in the beginning. As you probably know, the same thing happened in Ontario, Canada. The initial feed in tariffs in that jurisdiction were way too generous ($0.84/kWh) and this has had somewhat of a paradoxical whiplash effect. In my opinion, other jurisdictions in Canada are now wary of large scale adoption of solar through feed in tariffs because of mistakes made in Ontario. I guess (I hope!), things will soon even out and appropriate pricing will prove to non-believers that global adoption of solar power makes, not only environmental sense, but financial sense as well. The strong early demand for PV in Europe helped drive down manufacturing costs allowing the rest of us to make PV work, financially speaking. Even at 2011 PV hardware pricing, the power produced by our domestic PV array currently out competes our utility on price per kWh. This is with no feed in tariff.

    On the topic of ‘fracking’, this practice has the potential to devastate the planet like no other extraction method that has gone before it. I would urge anyone reading this post to examine the work of both Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, of Cornell University and Deborah Rogers, of the Energy Policy Forum. There are many people doing great work on exposing ‘fracking’ for the Ponzi scheme that it is but these two individuals stand out for me as beacons of reason whose work has been meticulously researched. It is simply wrong for industry to suggest that natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing presents a smaller carbon footprint than coal. Yes, the combustion conventional natural gas releases less carbon than the combustion of coal, however, the embedded carbon in ‘fracked’ natural gas makes coal look relatively green. I’m not being hyperbolic in saying this.

    As just one example of fracking insanity, if the Marcellus shale formation in north eastern US is fully developed, as industry is advocating, it would take enough steel (used to make well casing) to manufacture the equivalent of the current US naval fleet, twice over! This is one of Dr. Ingraffea’s statistics. (For anyone who doubts Dr. Ingraffea’s command of this kind of data, it’s worth pointing out that he spent most of his career as an eminent petroleum engineering consultant.)

    Anyway, sorry to go off on a tangent but the mere mention of the word ‘fracking’ raises my hair. Don’t even get me started on the EROEI of ‘fracked gas’. You know, it might be worth dedicating a post to the train wreck that is hydraulic fracturing. It’s not just a North American disaster; check out what happened in Poland. It would be hard to cover all the relevant data but it might give people a launching point for seeking the truth about this ongoing disaster.

    Thanks again; keep up the great work.


  • Pingback: Has Germany Subsidized The World's Now-Cheap Solar Power? | CleanTechnica()

  • Pingback: Has Germany Subsidized The World’s Now-Cheap Solar Power? | OzHouse()