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Object Lesson: Europe's Solar Energy Market

An object lesson is a concrete example of a negative outcome often juxtaposed with a positive outcome, but it is a lesson that is almost always worth paying attention to.

When governments tinker with markets, the end result depends on more than the specific market — it depends on the level of support provided to competitors and other actors important to the industry, the economic climate and the approval or disapproval of potential customers.  When support is added, the level of its generosity can accelerate the market to an unsupportable level and invite actors whose self-interest is counter that of the market.  When support is removed, be it abruptly or slowly, it can accelerate the market abruptly, leading eventually to a crash.  When retroactive measures are put in place, stability is almost never restored and participants are punished.  When punitive measures are imposed, such as price setting and taxes, it can destroy the market’s fragile ecosystem. 

The most telling comment that can be made about the market in Europe in 2013 is to recall the region’s historical demand shares: In 2004, Europe had a 45 percent share of global demand.  By 2006 Europe’s share of global demand had increased to 55 percent.  In 2007, Europe’s share of demand was 71 percent, in 2009 83 percent, and in 2013 Europe’s expected share of the global market for photovoltaic installations is 23 percent. 

Figure 1 presents estimated regional demand shares for 2013.  Though the global PV industry is healthier with a diversified portfolio of markets, none of these markets are as easy to traverse as the early European Feed in Tariff markets, nor are these new markets necessarily profitable.  Rapid and often retroactive changes to feed in tariff programs in Europe have left installers, distributors and other PV industry participants in Europe unprepared and struggling.  The current price setting agreement between the EU and China has not righted the situation for Europe’s cell and module manufacturers, and it has strained the resources of demand side participants. 

Figure 1 Estimated Regional Demand Shares 2013

Figure 2 depicts European demand profile from 2002 through the 2013 estimate. From 2002 through 2012 demand, that is the market for solar installations, in Europe grew by a compound annual 56 percent.

Figure 2 Europe Demand Growth and Accelerated Estimate 2002 - 2015  

During the 2004 through 2011 time frame, accelerated growth into this region was driven by the feed-in tariff incentive.  Originally, this incentive, which was pioneered by Germany, was a transparent mechanism with efficient rules regarding interconnection and easy permitting. The German FIT was an orderly market instrument.  Unfortunately, as the incentive spread among other European countries, transparency and efficiency gave way to overly generous tariffs that encouraged speculation and led to over-stimulated markets, broken rules, poorly installed systems and the development and deployment of less than robust technology. To be blunt, the generous FIT landscape did not bring out the best in new entrants, nor did it often stimulate the best behavior in long-time participants.

In the period before the global recession, banks and other investors did not require performance guarantees with the result, again, of poorly designed systems and poorly assembled module product.  Countries in Europe with FITs underwent abrupt changes to the rules and the tariff rates.  These abrupt changes shook investor confidence and drove down IRRs, specifically, with retroactive changes returns that were assumed to be stable abruptly became unstable.  For example, a retroactive tax established in the Czech Republic led to a market crash with no expectations for recovery, while changes to the amount of electricity that would be reimbursed in Spain (as well as other countries) along with the abrupt cessation of that country’s incentive in 2011 has shown clearly that the feed in tariff is an unreliable instrument — as are all artificial market supports. 

The global PV (solar in general) industry competes against heavily subsidized conventional energy that is delivered in some regions at the cost (or below the cost) of production.  The supports that conventional energy enjoys are deep, historic and multi-faceted it.  The supports that solar has received were temporary.  These supports when applied to an industry with so many constraints and a well-supported competitor did nothing to encourage the industry to prepare for the time when a low-incentive environment would return — nor did punitive measures, particularly those applied after the fact, heal the wounds of government interference.

The fact is that the global health of the climate and the health of current and future generations require a switch to renewables and away from polluting sources of energy. At the very least a level playing field (removing supports for conventional energy, including fracking) would let the participants battle it out somewhere in the vicinity of fairly. 

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