How much China weighs in the mega-plan on Europe's solar panels

How much China weighs in the mega-plan on Europe's solar panels

The latest official data is from November 2021. According to the calculations of Eurostat, the Community statistical agency, in 2020 the countries of the European Union imported solar panels for about 8 billion euros, compared to 1.8 billion in exports . And three out of four solar panels delivered to the Union's doors are manufactured in China.

The Dragon dominates the photovoltaic industry. In 2021, exports of solar panels and related products made in China are estimated to have grown by 60% compared to the previous year, reaching 28.4 billion dollars, as reported by the South China Morning Post citing the Ministry of Industry and of information technologies. Despite the effects of the pandemic, bottlenecks in manufacturing and logistics, shortages of raw materials and technological components, last year China exported solar modules per 100 Gigawatts of production, according to calculations by Asia Europe clear energy. advisory (Aecea), a German consulting firm based in Beijing.

Europe's solar plan The stone guest The industrial unknowns What is this history of the obligation of solar panels decided by Europe It is part of a package, Repower Eu, of 300 billion euros to abandon supplies of Russian gas, increase the contribution from renewable sources and increase energy savings. All the details The solar plan of Europe Al Dragone, therefore, must be whistled when, on Wednesday 18 May, the European Commission in Brussels unveiled Repower Eu, its proposal to correct the energy transition plan of the Fit for climate package. 55 (to reduce emissions from the block by 55% by 2030). Within the program, which puts about 300 billion on the table to accelerate investment in green energy with the declared goal of freeing itself from dependence on Russian gas, there is also a solar strategy, which aims to double production from panels in 2025 solar and photovoltaic compared to 2020, at 320 GW, and touch 600 GW in 2030, thus replacing two billion cubic meters of gas.

"At the end of 2020, the European Union reached 136 GW of installed generation capacity from solar panels and photovoltaic systems, having added more than 18 GW that same year. This contributes to around 5% of the overall electricity production in Europe - the Brussels report reads -. In this decade, the Union will have to install approximately 45GW per year in medica ”.

"Roofs have been the site for much of the development of solar energy, but there remains a great untapped potential," note the technicians of the Commission, whose proposal is to arrive at an obligation of solar panels and photovoltaic with marked times. By 2026 for all new public or commercial buildings larger than 250 square meters; by 2027 for existing ones; in 2029 for new residential constructions.

The great technological alliance between Europe and the United States Washington and Brussels want to coordinate efforts for common standards and projects in the tech field, from 6G to artificial intelligence, putting the corner the China. An agreement that, however, reserves many obstacles The stone guest For the Commission, “European citizens are happy to produce their own energy independently or collectively”. The Russian gas exit strategy has a sine qua non: constant supplies, at least in the short term, from China. It is the Commission itself that recognizes this risk factor. “Today the Union is a small player in many critical steps of manufacturing production and assembly at the high end of the value chain, including ingots, wafers and cells - reads the report -. Unless the shortage of producers based in Europe is remedied, the Union's competitiveness in research and innovation, an area in which proximity to manufacturing districts is often necessary, risks being compromised. The marginal contribution of the Union to the production and assembly phases, combined with the almost monopolistic role of a country in the production of components on a global level [China, of which the technicians are careful to mention the name, ed], decreases the resilience of the EU in the event of prolonged external supply crises ".

Davide Chiaroni, Deputy Director of Energy & Strategy, study center of the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, sees the glass as half full:" In the next three to four years it is clear that we do not have the scalability to respond structurally to requests and we will need to leverage on imports, which is not a bad thing anyway, because it activates a local business chain in installations and maintenance and, unlike fossil sources, does not bind us to the supply of raw materials ". In the medium term, to 2030, the goal must be to "strengthen European production capacity", says the expert.

The map of future lithium mines in Europe We are back to digging in the old continent to increase the internal production of metals and minerals necessary for the energy transition. Australian companies have sniffed the business, while Brussels hopes to free itself from dependence on China Industrial unknowns For Chiaroni, it will be difficult for the Union to break away from China as regards the “production of silicon, which is the basic component. But by going up the supply chain, we can enter into the production of cells and modules ”, involving the large utilities. Indeed, the Commission has in mind an industrial alliance for photovoltaics. Objective: To cover all production stages where Europe is now discovered, such as wafers and cells, and to increase domestic production by 20 GW at each stage within three years. On this chapter of the strategy, however, the Commission remains more vague. He mentions supply chain agreements, investments in innovation, support for the recycling of components and raw materials. And he estimates that 8 billion in investments are needed to start the engines, drawing them from the cohesion funds, the one for innovation and InvestEu (the recovery vehicle launched after the crisis caused by the pandemic). "The European solar sector is ready to scale and respond to the goals set today", commented Walburga Hemetsberger, CEO of Solar Power Europe, a trade association.

In the short term, however, Europe will have to rely on China. And this also means dealing with the production of polycrystalline silicon in Xianjiang, the internal region of China where the Uyghur population, a Turkish-speaking minority, is subject to repression and forced labor. Last year, the United States imposed a blockade on imports of polycrystalline silicon from Xinjiang, resulting in delays and blockages on construction sites that will continue into 2022. The Union has also adopted rules against the purchase of products resulting from forced labor. "If in February 2022 you are deciding that you only want to buy from companies that make polycrystalline that have nothing to do with Xinjiang, you have virtually no choice," was the lapidary remark of Paul Wormser, deputy director of technology of the global consultancy Clean Energy Associates.

There is also another element on which China is decisive: rare earths and minerals for the ecological transition. According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), "since 2010 the amount of minerals required to generate power has increased by 50% and a zero-emissions scenario would require four times more". All raw materials that Europe must import and China, directly or indirectly, dominates.

If, as Solar Power Europe calculates, America and Europe have conquered market shares in 2021, reaching respectively representing 22% and 19% globally, "China maintained the leadership", with an annual growth of 14%. Net of the announced technological alliance, which also concerns the green energy sector, Washington and Brussels are not ready to go it alone. At least for the next few years, those in which the Union wants to carry out the revolution, if Europe wants to realize its dreams, it cannot but rely on Beijing.

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