Could solar power provide some of the needed energy of the future? The much improved availability of natural gas and the crisis that the photovoltaic industrial sector has been experiencing since 2011 serve to make us cautious, viz., not to be over-optimistic. On one hand, we can witness the strategic policies chosen by China and, on the other, the expected advent of new PV cells, could together change the scene. Consequently, we must carefully examine and assess the economics, their dynamics and the supporting technologies.
The German photovoltaic industry is in chaos. Overwhelmed by the boom of solar home systems, the government has had to brutally halt subsidies whose costs were threatening to… go through the roof. Caught between Chinese competition and the falling price of solar panels, several of the flagships of this young industry are now on the brink of bankruptcy. After having enjoyed a heyday of several years, the sector suddenly has to adjust to new conditions. And, if it hopes to recover, must adapt.
The European energy equation is defined by three constraints: security of supply, fighting against climate change, competitiveness. It is complicated with the German choice on nuclear power, the arrival of shale gas, the rise of renewable energy, the impact of large emerging countries on the energy markets. What does it change for Europe and its industrial heavyweights?
The green energy boom has opened up cracks in the electricity sector to force to the surface problems which until recently were of only marginal interest. Wind power in particular has provoked forceful debates. Among the subplots are questions over how to manage intermittency. The result is a multiplicity of paths to innovation, one of which leads directly to electricity storage.
Micro-algae are driving a small technological revolution. Their cultivation marks a new era in the production of biofuels, reinventing industrial processes as well as economic models. In the United States and Europe, several projects are now moving from an experimenting phase to actual operation.
In February 2011, the European Council made a commitment to complete the internal energy market by 2014. This long process started in the early 1990s; till now, results have been somewhat mixed. New challenges have entered the equation: the need for increasing the share of renewables and the necessity to ensure secure supplies. This increased complexity has made a revision of current policies a priority: though liberalization remains the main rationale behind the EU policy, recent institutional changes suggest a move towards a more balanced policy.
The global electricity sector is facing three major challenges: the security of supply to keep up with ever-mounting demand, the fight against climate change, and the global trend toward massive urbanization. Electricity will play a key role through low-emitting energy-generation technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies already exist. Success will depend on how public policies are used to encourage innovation.
Nuclear energy is once more on the defensive, thanks to Fukushima. But day to day, fossil fuels are far riskier in the toll they take on people, not to mention their effect on global warming. And some renewables like ethanol and hydropower carry their own substantial, if underrated, risks. If Germany's move to shut down its nuclear plants turns out to be the start of a trend, what does it mean for our safety?
Power grids have long been constructed with a built-in intelligence. So why is so much noise being made over the arrival of so-called "smart grids"? Are we witnessing a real revolution? The potential for a massive shake-up is clear, one that could have an impact on power utilities, regulators, manufacturers, network managers, and consumers for many years to come.
The ever expanding palette of tools available to national authorities in their struggle to meet the energy needs of the future has grown to include fiscal incentives, quotas on production and the creation of feed-in tariffs on renewable energy sources. European Commission directives on the harmonization of renewable energy policy have taken on a greater urgency and as the measures implemented gain traction it would be wise to look back at the road already travelled and take the measure of the success or failure of decisions by focusing on the paths followed in Germany, Spain and France.
The failure of the Copenhagen climate change summit to formulate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol has cancelled hopes for the foreseeable future for any enforceable regulatory framework to deal with the global warming issue worldwide. Commentators have pointed the reticence of emerging economies along with recalcitrance of the US administration and the lobbying of powerful industrial interests. In Europe, Tax commissioner Semeta's proposal for a future EU carbon tax was placed on the backburner due to uncertainties on its economic effects. Observers have thus been left with three overriding questions: Where are we in the theoretical debate? What could be the next steps in the development of a low carbon fiscal model? What will be the economic impact of any future changes?
The pre-crisis trends on energy security of supply were worrying as consumption of oil, gas and electricity was growing and worldwide energy resources were limited. The investments in aging energy infrastructures needed to meet this demand were insufficient in volume and slow. This led to tense situations in the supply and demand balance with power cuts and even blackouts hitting some European countries. In addition, the majority of the new or planned electricity generation plants were fossil fuel fired, notably gas fueled, increasing gas supply dependency on Russia and generating CO2 emissions. The economic and financial crisis of the past 18 months modified the supply and demand balance in Europe. Demand has dropped bringing short-term relief, but investments in energy infrastructures have also decreased, which is worrying for the longer term.
Within the decade, many solar power experts believe that the cost of solar power per watt will reach parity with the cost of ordinary power generation. Already, in the past five years, the cost has dropped sharply, from more than five euros per watt to less than two. For humanity, this is undoubtedly good news. But beyond the raw technology, experts say that many complications lie ahead.