It is not enough to be one of the big 5, we need to do more to promote our technology, we need to do better.
I have been asked by someone outside of the solar thermal sector why do other renewable technologies, with incomparably less turnover or installed capacity in Europe, get more political support than solar thermal for heating and cooling. As a sector, we have asked ourselves this question repeatedly and there is no simple answer to it. However, we can indicate a combination of factors that contribute to this situation, become aware of the context, understand it, and then find solutions.
There is clearly an unbalanced focus on electrification. As a result, technologies that produce power always get more attention than those that produce only heat. In this context, it does not seem to matter if solar heat is cheaper, or more climate-friendly, or even produced in Europe.
Another aspect to consider is the overwhelming difference in terms of lobby capacity. It is much easier, for large companies, be it a utility or a large manufacturing company, to influence political decisions, as they have easier access to decision-makers at ministerial level or at other higher levels of the public administration, at the national level but also in international organizations
A third aspect that can be mentioned refers to the appeal that new solutions bring in comparison to solar heat. For instance, we have participated in a discussion within an industrial sector about future solutions and there were several interventions referring that hydrogen was not seen as a priority solution for their sector. Though, as an outcome of that meeting, a working group addressing hydrogen was set up. I can only attribute this outcome to the fact that this is the hot topic of the moment and, even if one is skeptical about it, one is curious to know what the prospects are and keep track of potential evolutions.
Solar heat is not seen as a game-changer, and as such is also not regarded as a top priority when it comes to renewable solutions, be it at the political level or an industrial plant. Changing this mindset and shaping a different image of solar heat technology, can only come from within the sector.
So, what can we do?
Not having the magic formula, I would say that we need to be more assertive in the arguments about solar thermal. Solar thermal is one of the big 5 renewable technologies globally and in Europe. For the record, the big 5 are hydropower, bioenergy, wind energy, solar photovoltaic, and solar heat. It is well known that the possibilities for additional deployment of large hydropower in Europe are limited, as well as that there are different constraints to further deployments of bioenergy. Additionally, Solar PV, despite all the investments to deploy the technology in Europe and to create a European manufacturing branch, is still a largely importing sector, with net imports well over 10 billion Euros per year.
As such, there are two main renewable solutions in Europe among the Big 5: wind energy and solar heat.
The relevance of solar heat, it should be noted, is not only about the achievements over the last decades but rather its potential and future. It is not about the 36 GWth already installed, or the estimated generation excessing 26 TWhth generated annually or net exports going over, most of the years, 1 billion Euros
It is mainly a combination of factors, from availability to costs, to sustainability. First, it has a proven track record and is available to be quickly deployed, making use of its current production overcapacity and the dispersion of the manufacturing all over Europe. Then it is also the fact that some solar thermal applications are among the cheapest (if not the cheapest, namely considering that solar thermal does not imply infrastructure, transmission, and distribution costs) renewable energy solutions in the market.
Equally relevant is the fact that solar thermal is among the renewable technologies with the best performance in terms of carbon payback and circularity criteria.
Considering the entire energy system, it should be noted that thermal energy storage is by default part of any solar thermal system, representing today over 185 GWhth of energy storage capacity. Just as a reference, the estimated total electrical energy storage capacity in Europe is foreseen to reach 5 GWh hours by the end of 2020.
Finally, it must be made clear that solar heat is a no-regret solution, not only because of the benefits considering climate, costs or job creation in Europe but also because solar thermal systems can be combined with any other heating technology, thermal or electric, existing or future.
We could continue with the extensive list of benefits though it is not about us, in the sector, being proud of the benefits of solar thermal. The main challenge is about how we communicate those benefits and how we reach the right people with our communication. We need to resort to creativity to find new ways to highlight the advantages and inevitability of solar thermal as a solution for the future. And because two heads are always better than just one, we need to work together on this endeavor, not only for the sharing of ideas but also for the implementation.
We invite you to visit SolariseHeat.eu and to contribute to the promotion of this initiative. But we also invite you to get in touch with us, to get involved in the different task forces within SHE, to participate in our upcoming General Assembly and the event planned for the day before, so that we can discuss ideas so that we can find the creative and low-cost approaches that can help us to bring this message forward.
We are expecting you. See you soon.
Pedro Dias, Secretary General of Solar Heat Europe