Rhein on Energy and Climate

During the last 20 years the EU has been the major global pioneer in developing wind and solar energy. It has done so in order to become independent from fossil energy sources and from dominant oil and gas suppliers like Russia and OPEC.

Its efforts have failed so far on two crucial counts:

  • Not all EU countries have actively engaged in building an industry and a European market for renewable energies, due to a lack of leadership from the EU Commission. Only Germany, Denmark, Spain, Netherlands and UK have taken renewable energies seriously. But they developed their national support schemes in isolation and without a common EU framework.
  • As a consequence, the EU has not been able to turn renewable energies into dynamic EU-wide industrial sector, operating globally and enjoying the economies of scale necessary to make renewable technologies competitive with fossil power.

Today, the EU pays the price for the absence of a long-term strategy by the EU Commission and member states.

It has lost its leading role to China, which has become the undisputed industrial world market champion for solar and increasingly also wind energy.

China has understood that renewable energies constitute the only valid alternative to finite fossil resources that must therefore be a strategic sector for technological and industrial development. In 2010 Chinese companies accounted for almost half of global sales of PV modules. Their share is bound to rise further after the insolvency of three major US competitors in the summer of 2011 and the marginal role of European companies on the world market. Europe cannot boast of a single internationally-known competitor!

The PV industry is therefore set to become another sector firmly in the hands of Asian companies! Nobody in Europe seems to get excited about the reasons for this incredible failure of industrial policy or the consequences for European autonomy of renewable energy!

The situation is still somewhat better for the wind turbine industry, though it is fragmented among a dozen mostly small-scale manufacturers, essentially Danish, Spanish and German ones, which are fighting desperately against increasing competition from China. And what is more, they depend on China for the supply of “rare earths”, which are indispensable for certain crucial components.

In conclusion, the EU needs a viable industrial sector for wind and solar energy that is able to play a role as one of the global market leaders and resist competitive pressure from Chinese manufacturers.

This sector occupies a strategic importance for long-term European energy supply. It is therefore not enough for the EU Commission to define road maps for essentially zero-emission energy supply by 2050. It also has to define a road-map for the industries able to supply the necessary technologies. But presently no Commission department seems to feel responsible for doing so!

This Commission should without delay define guidelines for an effective industrial policy in this crucial field for Europe’s long-term energy supply.

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