With the European solar power market gaining momentum year upon year, Ingmar Wilhelm offers up his expertise and predictions for the current and future states of the industry.
A respected author, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, once asked at a press conference: "If we use solar power, wouldn't the sun burn out?" And while we can smile at his outlook in the comfort of retrospect, his question does much to offer an insight into the huge accelerations that solar power - and renewables in general - have had in the past few decades.
Where those in the know once controlled scientific and economic circles, modern day understanding has reached out and encapsulated the masses, forced into knowledge by our growing dependence on fossil fuels and the realisation that a drastic change in energy sources is needed. Renewable energy has become our beacon of hope for the future - and it would appear that solar power has a firm grasp on the torch.
Making sure it stays that way, Ingmar Wilhelm, Executive Vice President of Enel Green Power and recently appointed President of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), has been working relentlessly to push the boundaries of solar and photovoltaic (PV) technologies for the European community. What is needed is an all-seeing eye over the industry to ascertain exactly where we are and where we need to go in the near future. Fortunately, Wilhelm can provide just that.
"Propelled by its own technological progress," explains Wilhelm, "but also the uncertainty over the future availability and cost of fossil fuels, increased environmental awareness and lasting political support, photovoltaic power has grown at unprecedented rates over the past few years. At the end of 2009, it accounted for an installed capacity base of over 22,000 MW worldwide.
"The growth momentum also remains very strong in 2010. For the first time ever, an additional capacity of over 10,000 MW stemming from new photovoltaic installations will be reached. This development will be made up of important additions in an increasing number of countries: Germany will certainly be the frontrunner, with Italy most probably being second in terms of volumes. Other markets such as Japan, the US, France, Greece, the Czech Republic, China and Canada will follow."
Indeed, with a cumulative installed capacity of almost 10 GW, including 3.8 GW installed in 2009, Germany remains the world's largest PV market . Notwithstanding the recently announced feed-in-tariff (FiT) cuts, the German market is expected to grow by some 6 to 7,000 MW during 2010. New cuts in 2011 will come, but the industry's cost competitiveness will presumably also be able to cope with a reasonable reduction next year.
Moving perspective towards the mid-term, Italy glistens with promise, with an additional capacity of around 730 MW in 2009 - and the new Conto Energia, or energy bill on the remuneration of photovoltaic power - will drum up further momentum for the promising Italian market. Growth from 2010 to 2013 is expected to be above 1,000 MW each year - with forecasts suggesting it may reach over 1,500MW in both 2010 and 2011.
Perhaps one of the more surprising successes of the last year, the Czech Republic showed important growth, in 2009 with 411 MW installed. However, it's not all sunshine and smiles, as their overly generous support schemes are more than likely to shrink the market in 2011 after another year of strong growth in 2010.
Bringing up the rear, Belgium made its first ever entry into the Top 10 markets with 292 MW installed in 2009, followed by France with 185 MW and a further 100 MW installed but not yet connected to the grid - which clearly demonstrates the importance of solving grid connection issues in order to allow the market to develop. Finally, Greece, Portugal and the UK are all showing interesting potential for growth, both this year and looking towards the future.
However, despite this impressive growth, PV technology is still in the early stages of large-scale deployment. The EPIA predicts that 2010 will be witness to a global cumulative installed PV capacity growth of 40 percent, while annual growth is expected to increase by more than 50 percent. "From this," continues Wilhelm, "we can derive the outstanding potential for further cost reduction in the future, which will make photovoltaic power competitive with traditional energy sources in several countries already in this decade. The future growth rates of photovoltaic energy will probably be the highest among all renewable sources."
With that in mind, we could assume that PV technologies are set to take the continent by storm. While there may be some truth to that assumption, it needs to be placed in the wider scheme of the renewables industry as a whole in order to appreciate where the PV industry currently resides.
"All renewable energies fit the same objective of sustainability," affirms Wilhelm. "Therefore, the more the better, at the lowest cost possible. Intelligently developed energy systems will rely on a mix of sources. This diversification increases competition as well as safety of supplies and at the same time reduces risks such as availability of technologies, primary energy and commodities in general.
"All cited renewable technologies can, without any problem, be developed in parallel. However, there are also some differences, first and foremost in terms of technological maturity. Hydroelectric run-of-river, geothermal and onshore wind power can be considered mature technologies, with still some room for increased efficiency, but the rates of improvement are shrinking. On the other side, technologies like tidal power and wave power are still in their technological infancy and will certainly see major progress in terms of design, installation and cost in the future.
"On this maturity curve, between hydro, geothermal, onshore wind on the one hand and wave energy on the other there is photovoltaic power. This renewable source has left its infancy and is now ramping up in all dimensions: supply of materials, production facilities, installed capacity and investment in new technologies. The current efficiency gains and foreseeable technological improvements stirred by this combination are the factors that make photovoltaic power so attractive.
"The other major difference between the renewable sources mentioned lies in the production profile and the load factor. The highest load factors will be reached with geothermal, hydroelectric run-of-river and wave power, followed by wind and photovoltaics. However, looking at the value of the energy produced, photovoltaics will be in pole position thanks to a generation profile obviously concentrated in highly valued peak hours and pretty predictable at the same time."
As a lasting point, Wilhelm cites the ability of any given energy source to adapt to its relative environment, which translates into the biggest potential impact in the race for renewable success. Whereas wind and wave projects are most commonly implemented in large units, photovoltaic energy can cover all segments - from larger plants down to medium and small-scale rooftop applications for residential use. Photovoltaic power can integrate seamlessly with urban environments, always close to where the consumption is: a trait that remains unique among all major renewable sources.
This capacity to adapt to almost any situation thrown at it has undoubtedly helped to rocket PV to the top of the residential charts, allowing consumers to run their appliances while simultaneously soothing their eco-morals. To a certain extent, that is what it comes down to: communities must have the opportunity to embrace change in a positive way - looking at PV as something they can personally encourage as opposed to something that is forced upon them. And with EPIA data showing that Europe used over 40,000 MW more total renewable power than America and Asia in 2008, it would seem that Europe is on its way to a winning formula in terms of renewable adoption.
Secret of success
"I see three reasons for this," outlines Wilhelm. "First of all, the gap between high consumption and own primary energy reserves is simply too wide and Europe's energy dependence too strong. Secondly, Europe has understood that only innovative technologies and the highest efficiency possible can pave the way out of the dilemma, with the positive effect of creating new industries here in the ‘old continent'. On top of this, many European citizens, associations and parties are aware of the environmental impact of fossil fuels and want to make their direct contribution to a more sustainable world energy-wise.
"In fact, a large potential of natural resources in hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy can be found in Europe. Hydro and geothermal resources have been developed over many decades, whereas wind, solar and biomass have been developed in the last 20 years. As Europe started this development earlier than others, our shares of global power generation from renewables are always relatively high."
The next question running through the minds of EPIA supporters is where PV implementation will have the greatest effect. Is there an increasing amount of interest from small and mediums-size households and investors, or will big money take over and concentrate the development on very large solar farms? According to Wilhelm, the share of distributed PV, which today already accounts for the majority of new capacity, is set to increase even further in the future due to technology's versatility and the comparable cost of traditional supply being the highest at distribution and not at wholesale level where big solar farms feed in.
First of all, it comes down to higher cost competitiveness reached at the distributed generation level. Secondly, increasing land use restrictions reduce the opportunities for larger plants and limit the amount of large scale projects. Finally, with grid integration being much easier and less costly at lower voltage levels, it's logical for distributed PV to ensure it involves itself more. With a higher number of investors, from small and medium-sized enterprises to families, this attractive game of distributed PV power could create direct participation opportunities for all concerned.
"In Italy," continues Wilhelm, "the retail subsidiary of Enel Green Power - Enel.si - is pursuing these opportunities with a franchise team of over 550 photovoltaic entrepreneurs throughout Italy who have already completed small and medium-scale PV units with a total capacity exceeding 150 MW. Nevertheless, Enel Green Power is also investing into larger-scale solar farms, in line with regional power consumption needs, selected sites and territorial acceptance."
Not one to rest on its laurels, Enel also inaugurated the world's first combined-cycle gas and concentrated solar power (CSP) plant on July 14, 2010. Known as the Archimede Project, it is the only type of its kind to utilise molten salt for heat transfer and storage, which is then processed through a conventional power plant. Rather fittingly, it is named after the inventor's huge parabolic mirrors used to capture the sun's rays.
"The plant is based on highly innovative technology developed together with the Italian Governmental Agency for Energy Research (ENEA)," confirms Wilhelm, "with whom Enel signed a cooperation agreement back in March 2007. The aim of the project is to provide a prototype for this kind of integration between traditional and renewable energy production and to address the opportunities of managing generation profiles through imbedded storage facilities.
"The new CSP plant will be totally integrated with the existing thermodynamic cycle. The additional generation capacity will be around 5MW - able to meet the energy demand of around 5000 households - representing an annual saving of 2100 tonnes of oil equivalent and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by about 3250 tonnes."
As if having the world's first combined cycle and CSP power plant and a team of over 550 PV entrepreneurs under your belt weren't enough, Enel Green Power can now lay claim to directly support EPIA through its presidential function. Having ascended the ranks, Wilhelm was elected in March 2010 to "represent the strong interest within the PV industry to move further down the value chain to electricity generation".
Passion and vision
In listening to Wilhelm, it is easy to identify his passion and motivation to propel PV and solar power to the level he, and countless others, feel it should be at. "The EPIA represents all actors along the entire PV value chain in Europe," he explains. "We are supporting the sustainability of existing markets as well as driving the development of emerging countries. We are also eager to promote investment in the PV industry in Europe. In particular, we are dedicating an increasing amount of time and effort to identifying and developing new business enablers and models such s smart grids, new storage facilities, e-mobility, integrated PV supply solutions and segment specific building-integrated PV applications. There really is a lot to do.
Adel El Gammal, Secretary General of EPIA, said with regard to Wilhelm's appointment: "The accession of Enel Green Power to the presidency of EPIA marks the evolution of the industry's focus from technology and production towards electricity generation." Combined with this, the EPIA released its ‘SET for 2020' study, which aimed to establish a roadmap for its goal to make PV a mainstream source of electricity generation in the next 10 years.
With so much already on his plate, Wilhelm seems to exude calmness on the road he will need to travel - and knows where's going. "My specific contribution to these goals will stem from the utility background that my company and I can offer to the photovoltaic industry. Photovoltaic energy is on the way to becoming a significant source of supply in many regional and national energy systems as well as at European level. Integrating this renewable energy source intelligently into the supply side requires deep understanding of how major energy systems work, how they can be developed and optimised. This will be in the focus of our contribution."