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Europe: Solar energy thriving as climate warms

April 24, 2023

The changing climate could bring a hotter, sunnier future for Europe — along with extreme heat and drought. What does that mean for the continent's solar sector?

Sheep grazing near photovoltaic solar panels
Farmers have begun to realize the added benefits of solar panels, from increased shade to another revenue streamImage: R. Linke/blickwinkel/picture alliance

Europeans are seeing more sunshine every year, a trend that contributed to 2022 being the continent's second-warmest year on record. And while that means an increased risk of drought, wildfires and health-threatening heat stress, it has also opened up new prospects for renewable energy.

"We are really moving into uncharted territory," director of the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service Carlo Buontempo told reporters on the release of the annual European State of the Climate report. He described 2022 as "another record-breaking year in terms of greenhouse gas concentration, temperature extremes, wildfires and precipitation, which have all had noticeable impact on both ecosystems and community all over the continent."

The study, published this month, showed that solar radiation across Europe was at its highest level observed in 40 years, reflecting a steady increase in the hours of sunshine and decreasing cloud cover over the decades.

Producing solar power in the Alps

Last year, the continent recorded 130 more hours of sunshine than average — an increase mainly recorded between January and July when large parts of Europe were trapped under atmospheric high-pressure systems linked to climate change. This resulted in dry, sunny weather and prolonged drought. Efforts to reduce air pollution, which can contribute to cloud production, also played a role in reducing cloud cover and resulted in more sunny days.

Some regions in Europe — Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Estonia and parts of Southeast Europe — saw an even larger increase, putting those areas on par with the sunny weather typically seen in southern Spain. Conversely, Spain and Portugal saw below average sunshine in 2022, due in part to slightly higher cloud cover over the Iberian Peninsula.

'Another record year for solar'

More sunshine meant that potential solar photovoltaic power generation, as calculated by Copernicus, was also noticeably higher than normal across most of Europe. That's potentially good news for Europe's solar power sector, which made up 7.3% of the EU's electricity mix last year, up from 6% in 2021, according to climate think tank Ember.

"There is a clear trend in the observations which is at least partly reflected in the climate projections," Buontempo told DW. "That said, the potential for Europe to become self-sufficient in terms of renewable energy depends much more on the installed capacity and its tendency over time than on climate."

The data presented by Copernicus only reported on the changing climate conditions and did not take into account the growth in solar energy production across Europe. But a December report by industry group SolarPower Europe showed that the 27 EU member states added 41.4 gigawatts of new solar infrastructure to the grid in 2022, more than doubling what was installed just two years earlier.

"Last year was a yet another record year for solar," said Dries Acke, policy director at SolarPower Europe, adding that the energy crisis also played a role. "We still have dominant countries like Spain, Germany, traditionally strong solar countries, but we've seen a real proliferation across Europe."

Acke acknowledged that increased hours of sunshine would boost the solar industry, but told DW that the rapid growth was mostly due to other factors. "It's much more driven by the efficiency of the technology and the cost reductions in general, and the increased awareness of the potential of solar and familiarization with the technology," he said.

It also helped, Acke added, that countries which haven't traditionally been major markets for solar energy were starting to see the potential, looking past the common perception that solar only makes sense in sunny, desert regions. He pointed to burgeoning markets in Denmark and Sweden, for example, which respectively added 1.5 and 1.1 gigawatts to the grid last year.

"That makes Sweden and Denmark top 10 countries [when it comes to] newly installed solar in Europe. And we see similar movement in the UK, in Ireland, Norway, Finland."

Electricity grids, storage still lacking

Acke said while capacity had increased significantly in recent years, more support was needed to update and expand the electricity grid and storage across Europe. "It certainly is progressing. But I think we need an acceleration," he said, adding that many solar panel companies were also starting to branch out into battery technology as a result.

"In the end, the biggest challenge that we have in the energy transition is inertia," said Acke, stressing that people and system operators needed to be confident and open to new technologies.

Two people ride in a rubber dinghy past a floating solar farm on Godley Reservoir in Hyde, Manchester
Floating solar arrays can create more opportunity for solar power generation, while helping to reduce evaporation. At the same time, the water can prevent panels from overheatingImage: Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images/picture alliance

That includes realizing all the side benefits of solar power generation, especially when it comes to farming. Acke highlighted how solar panels could be used to shade crops and protect them from extreme heat, and reduce evaporation from fields and reservoirs. In recent years, he said, farmers have begun to understand the economic advantages of switching to solar.

"Farmers can also sell that electricity," said Acke. "The revenue they get from an acre of land increases, both from an agricultural yield as well as from an electricity point of view."

Edited by: Tamsin Walker

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues