Star performer: Europe installs 2.1 GW of new solar thermal in 2006

‘In a few decades, wasting gas, oil or electricity for low temperature uses such as space heating will no longer be an option.’ Instead, by 2030, solar can provide well over 50% of Europe’s heat by 2030. And with 47% market growth in 2006, the signs are promising. Jackie Jones reports on solar thermal in Europe and takes a brief look at some other world markets.

‘If all EU countries used solar thermal as enthusiastically as the Austrians, the EU’s installed capacity would already be 91 GWth’ the introduction to the Solar Thermal Action Plan for Europe tells us. That is the equivalent of 130 million square metres of collector, far beyond the target of 100 million m2 target by 2010 that was set by Europe’s White Paper on Renewables back in 1997.

Unfortunately, Austria is one of the handful of European countries – indeed, the handful of countries around the world – where solar thermal is a ‘normal’ option, rather than something unusual. So as it is, 2007 should see installations across Europe reach 15 GWth – well short of 91 GWth, but nonetheless three times what they were in 1997, and up from 10 GWth in 2004.

Some 15% of Austrian single-family houses (rather than apartments) have solar thermal installations – that’s 199 kWth per thousand people. (On the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the buoyant and well established market has achieved 479 kWth per thousand.) Other main markets in Europe are Greece and Germany, with France, Spain and Italy developing rapidly. Many countries, however, have scarcely made a start. Beyond European shores, Israel has for many years required the use of solar water heating, and Korea, too, now has a well established solar thermal industry.

Solar heating and cooling can be used effectively on industrial and commercial buildings – as in this cooling installation at Audi’s Ingolstadt training centre SOLAHART/ESTIF

The large market in China – which dwarfs all others – continues to grow rapidly. In 2005, China had over 10,000 MWth of solar thermal installations, compared with under 2000 MWth in the whole of Europe.

In Europe, and globally, the potential, is massive. Even in Austria, with its 15% uptake of solar thermal in detached family houses, the remaining 85% of such homes still have no solar thermal – not to mention apartments, schools, hospitals and so on.

In March 2007, European leaders agreed that 20% of all Europe’s energy should come from renewables by 2020. It was a bold decision, but absolutely necessary against the backdrop of the overall energy and climate change picture. Over the coming months, the individual countries will be formulating plans for implementing the agreed targets, and those plans will need to include renewable heating and cooling. As the Solar Thermal Action Plan for Europe states, ‘in a few decades, wasting gas, oil or electricity for low temperature uses such as space heating will no longer be an option. There will be strong competition for limited bimass resources. For heating and cooling, solar will be the main outstanding alternative, combined with geothermal when available’.

Critical market mass

Overcoming the chicken and egg dilemma is essential, says the Solar Thermal Action Plan for Europe. For two decades, a constant feature of the European solar thermal market has been the strong imbalance between those few leading countries with developed markets and a large majority of countries with very slow market development. Once a country has reached a minimal market volume, growth tends to become self-contained, even with very low political support, as is the case in Greece, says the Plan (and this is certainly the case in China). Where there is low demand, however, a vicious circle tends to inhibit growth and the market stagnates. Political support can help break the vicious circle.

Once critical market mass has been achieved, most of the barriers to market growth vanish. Within a market that has achieved that mass, says the Plan:

  • people know about solar thermal and find it natural to use it
  • standard education and training of professionals includes sections on solar thermal
  • architects include solar thermal as a standard feature in buildings
  • all heating installers offer solar thermal systems
  • industry invests heavily into market development and R&D
  • mass production and marketing drive down costs.
Solar thermal markets in Europe

With spectacular grwoth of 47% in 2006, Europes’s solar thermal market exceeded expectations, with 2.1 GWth of newly installed capacity (3 millon m2 of collector area). First forecasts for 2007 indicate a more moderate growth rate – with an expected rate of 27%, the EU market for newly insalled capacity would by 2.68 GWth by year-end (3.8 million m2 of collector area. The following country data are taken from ESTIF’s Solar Thermal Markets in Europe report, published in June 2007.


Despite two subsequent reduction in the specific grants of Germany’s market stimulation programme, the German market outpaced every other national market of significance except for France. 1.05 GWth of new capacity was installed in 2006 (an increase of 58%), putting the capacity in operation at 5.6 GWth. To put things into perspective; on a per capita basis, the German market is exactly half that of Austria – 12.7 vs 25.2 kWth per thousand capita. Much more is expected from this market leader in the future. For 2007, the most recent available forecast is of a market at the same high level as in 2006.


Austria remains the ‘continental’ leader in solar thermal. In Europe, only Cyprus installs more capacity per capita and per year than the 25 kWth/thousand capita of Austria. Within Austria, the differences between the various regions are significant, with each of them having their own support programme.

A new and very positive trend appeared in 2006: the number of larger collective systems increased substantially. While in the past demand was almost exclusively in the one or two-family house sector, nowadays more and more apartment buildings are equipped with solar thermal systems. For 2007, the newly installed capacity is expected to increase to 245 MWth (+20%).


The French mainland market continues to astonish: after having more than doubled from 2004 to 2005, this market increased another 81% in 2006. The simplicity of the tax febate introduced in 2004 has significantly contributed to the success of this incentive scheme; because consumers do not have to apply for a grant first, they can decide quickly and with a minimum of administrative overhead afterwards.

The incentives are tied to certain hardware certification, as well as quality scheme on the part of the installer. Only systems installed by one of almost 10,000 ‘Qualisol’ installers are eligible for the tax rebate. For 2007, growth of approximately 25% over the previous year is expected.


It turns out that the Italian market is significantly bigger than previously estimated and has a size comparable to that of France or Spain. This was revealed by a new systematic market survey performed during the first months of 2007 by a panel of independent experts, with the support of ESTIF and other market players. The figures show that the new capacity installed in Italy during 2006 was actually 130 MWth (186,000 m2). As the under-estimation of the market was systematic in recent years, this figure cannot be compared with the previous year’s. However, even with the corrected market data it will take years of effort from industry and policy makers before Italy can achieve levels per capita comparable to its neighbours Austria and Greece.


In 2006 the Spanish market increased by over 60% to 123 MWth newly installed capacity. For 2007, a market increase to almost 230 MWth is expected (+85%).

The biggest news in 2006 was the introduction of nationwide solar obligation for new buildings. The regulation, which builds on the success of the many municipal ‘Solar ordinances’ came into force in September 2006 and applies to almost any building, either newly constructed or undergoing in major refurbishment. The experience at municipal level has shown a time lag of 1-3 years until a solar obligation is fully effective. Already, many solar thermal companies have increased their presence in the Spanish market. This once again proves that private investment can be triggered by suitable public policies.

The US market – a new dawn?

Throughout much of the 1980s, the United States led the world in solar thermal technology and hot water installations. The vibrant market driven by high utility and oil prices and a generous solar tax credit introduced by President Jimmy Carter. When the solar tax credit was removed in 1986, and oil prices plunged, the market lost its drivers and underwent a massive crash. In fact, says Thomas Lane of Energy Conservation Services (a speaker at ESTEC in June 2007), over 95% of US solar installers went out of business in 1986. And by 1987 the number of manufacturers had dropped from 330 to only six.

For 20 years, the market went backwards. The lack of installers also meant a lack of service and maintenance, so many systems installed during the boom started to fail, and were removed. The only part of the market that remained strong was in pool heating, with a network of installers (based primarily in Florida, Arizona, California and Hawaii) installing unglazed copolymer collectors from three main manufacturers, explains Lane.

Meanwhile, solar water heating flourished only in Hawaii (which has high electricity prices and a utility incentive for solar) and Florida, with California’s SunEarth and Florida’s AET manufacturing over 70% of all the solar collectors sold in, or exported from, the US, says Lane.

So is the US set for a resurgence of solar thermal technology? Acknowledged by President Bush as ‘addicted to oil’, the country is experiencing a rapid upswing in wind power, solar PV and biofuels for transport. Lane has plenty of evidence that the market could rise very rapidly – provided that businesses are confident of a long-term future. For instance, when in 2005 a 30% Federal tax credit was introduced for hot water systems (capped at $2000 for domestic systems), and bolstered in many states by extra support, those swimming pool contractors that took the decision to expand into hot water saw ‘off-the-chart growth’, says Lane, while manufacturers SunEarth and AET grew by over 150% and 400%, respectively. Yet many companies did not have the confidence to expand, because the Federal incentive was due to end in 2007 (though it was extended to 2008 at the end of 2006).

Yet, Lane observes that earlier important driver – high utility prices – is active once again. He says most prospective customers contacting solar installers to avoid high utility bills know little about the solar tax credit – but over 80% of those who find out about the credit then do decide to install a solar hot water system.

The market is poised for growth – but it will not happen automatically. And a fundamental requirement, says Lane, is for trained personnel – both domestic-scale installers and experienced commercial design engineers and installation teams.


Brazil’s solar water heating market has grown significantly over the past 10 years, and the industry is well established. It is also competitive, and a quality assurance system, the Brazilian Labelling Program, applies to many system components. The Qualisol programme also operates in Brazil. The market is dominated by small, thermosyphon systems, and most are of a relatively cheap and simple construction, point out Lucio Mesquita and Elizabeth Pereira of the Energy Group at Brazil’s Catholic University of Minas Gerais, who gave a presentation at ESTEC in June. Given the climatic conditions, these tend to be more cost effective than sophisticated, high-efficiency systems. Brazil’s manufacturers’ assocation, ABRAVA, estimates that at the end of 2006 some 3,112,105 m2 of collector area had been installed in Brazil. Installations on houses and apartment buildings make up 72% of that total, according to Mesquita and Pereira’s figures. Yet only 0.37% of Brazilian households use solar water heating, compared with 78% using electric water heaters (99.7% of which are instantaneous water heaters), so there is great potential for growth.

However, even modestly priced solar systems remain too expensive an investment for many households. Mesquita and Pereira believe that sales are most likely to be restricted to the (approx.) 10% of households that have family incomes higher than 10 times the monthly minimum wage – yet even this segment could potentially account for no more than 3.6%.

Interestingly, there is a move to make solar thermal available to social housing projects – the largest one, with almost 4000 systems, was installed by Rio de Janeiro’s main electricity utility, Light. More than 8000 such systems have been installed or planned since 2000, say Mesquita and Pereira. Since the use of instantaneous water heaters produces significant spikes in electricity demand, especially in the early evening, it makes commercial sense for the utility to encourage the use of solar thermal.


Australia’s solar water heating market more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, according to Ken Guthrie of Sustainability Victoria, another ESTEC presenter. Approximately 4% of all water heaters in the country are now solar water heaters. The market ha been driven over the pst five years by the government’s Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET), together with state subsidy schemes. (As this issue went to press, Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced that over 200,000 households would be offered an AUS$1000 incentive to install solar hot water systems.) Furthermore, solar thermal also benefits from the tradable certificate scheme used in Australia to deliver renewable electricity – solar is included, based on the amount of electricity displaced through its use.

Australian states have introduced regulations designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from water heating (often combined with water-saving measures). Victoria has enacted regulations requring a solar water hater or a rainwater tank on all new houses from July 2006. New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia all have different approaches that are also expected to boost the market. Victoria has had a successful rebate scheme for solar water heaters since 2000, resulting in the installation of over 10,000 installed systems, AUS$40 million of sales, and the development of new gas-boosted solar products.

Towards 2030 – vision for a solar Europe

According to the European Solar Thermal Technology Platform (ESTTP), solar can provide well over 50% of Europe’s heat by 2030 – and must, if CO2 reduction targets are to be met and Europe is to minimize its dependency on imported oil and gas. Today, 49% of final energy demand in Europe (EU25) is used for heating purposes, 80% of that being low temperature heat (below 250°C). With solar thermal currently contributing no more than 0.2%, the scale of growth needed is vast.

ESTTP has the goal of systematically driving forward the further development in technology that is needed to achieve such growth. ESTTP is one of several technology platforms that have resulted from an initiative by the European Commission to accelerate the development of future technology by means of technology platforms. The task of the technology platforms is to create a long-term technology vision and to draw up a corresponding Strategic Research Agenda based on this vision. They should also include market introduction strategies. ESTTP was officially founded in May 2006, with a kick-off meeting in December. Here 12 working groups (within three focus groups) were tasked with developing the detailed visions for 2030 in their respective areas, and proposing the research activities needed. ESTTP plans to present a new version of its vision for 2030, along with an initial Strategic Research Agenda at the beginning of 2008 (drafts of these documents will be discussed at a working conference in Brussels in October 2007.

Air collectors for cooling installation in Freiburg, Germany FRAUNHOFER ISE/ESTIF

At present (and as reported to the June 2007 ESTEC conference by Gerhard Stryi-Hipp), the main ideas of the existing Solar Thermal Vision for 2030 are as listed below – they include technological advances, but also a significant broadening of ideas of how solar thermal can contribute.

A solar vision for new buildings

The active solar building will be completely heated by solar thermal energy. Active solar systems could be integrated into the walls to minimize heating requirement and provide a source of heat energy. In summer, this energy could be used for cooling. Solar collectors on the roof will provide hot water.

A solar vision for existing building stock

Active solar renovated buildings will be heated and cooled by at least 50% with solar thermal energy, and active solar renovation will be the most cost-efficient way to renovate buildings. There are many opportunities from combining active solar thermal systems with insulation measures. Active solar renovation might mean that compact facade or roof units with active solar elements would be placed on top of existing facades for insulation and production of energy. Other facade elements could be directly coupled to the existing wall, enabling the wall to efficiently absorb solar energy and direct the heat into the building in a controlled manner. In summer, the solar heat will be used for cooling the building. Overall, the thermal comfort of buildings will be much higher than today.

Block and district heating must significantly increase their share of heat from solar thermal, biomass and geothermal in densely built-up urban centres. By 2030, the use of fossil fuels will be replaced by renewable heating systems within block and district heating systems, such as the ones widely found in Sweden and Poland. Within southern, central and northern Europe, new block and district heating systems will be built and solar thermal energy will meet a large part of the energy demand.

Solar assisted cooling. The air conditioning market is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades, particularly within European and Mediterranean countries. While intelligent architectural design can minimize the need for cooling, the rising demand for comfort in increasing summer temperatures is expected to cause an ongoing increase in cooling demand. Solar assisted cooling is highly likely to meet a large share of this – strongly in its favour is its ability to help prevent the summer power peaks that electrically driven cooling creates.

A solar vision for desalination

Supply of clean drinking water will become an urgent task in the future, and it is important to accelerate the development of innovative water production systems using renewable energy. Water desalination and water treatment around the world will be increasingly powered by solar, wind and other clean natural resources in the future.

A solar vision for process heat and new applications

28% of energy demand in the EU25 countries is from the industrial sector, ith many industrial processes requiring heat at temperatures below 250°C. By 2030, solar thermal systems will be widely used to serve that market – in the food and drink industries, textiles and chemical, and in washing processes. Factories and office buildings will also be heated and cooled by solar thermal.

R&D vision

Among the ideas being explored by the ESTTP are that

  • solar thermal collectors will cover entire roof areas, together with PV. Combined solar thermal and electric collectors (PVT) will become available. South-facing facades will also be used as solar absorption surfaces.
  • collectors will be completely integrated into building envelope components
  • collectors will become available for high-temperature applications as well as large-scale collectors, facade-integrated modules and inexpensive low-temperature collectors
  • they will use new materials, such as a new gneration of plastics, super-insulating materials and dirt-resistant surfaces, plus ‘smart’ materials with switchable layers that allow collectors to be dynamically adjusted
  • Heat stores will offer much higher energy density, have much better thermal insulation, and be available to offer seasonal heat storage within very small volume. They will also be integrated into the traditional construction elements of the building.
Cost reductions

Within 20 years, says ESTTP, costs will be reduced by more than 50%. In many southern European regions, solar heat is already cost-competitive with heat produced by fossil fuels, and further cost reductions will depend on development of the market and on technology.

Jackie Jones is Editor of Renewable Energy World


Solar Thermal Markets in Europe (Trends and market statistics 2006) ESTIF, June 2007
Solar Thermal Action Plan for Europe (Heating and Cooling from the Sun) ESTIF, January 2007
Presentations from the 3rd European Solar Thermal Energy Conference (ESTEC) June 2007
For more on the ESTTP Solar Thermal Vision 2030, see

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