Europe is expected to buy 50 percent of China’s solar PV exports in 2022 in hopes of alleviating its energy crisis that was begun by low wind speeds and soaring energy demand after the pandemic and exacerbated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Chinese solar panels have increased in popularity among European consumers in addition to electric blankets, hand warmers and wood as they face a cold winter with less access to natural gas.
From January to August, China’s solar PV exports reached $35.77 billion, exceeding the value of solar PV exports in all of 2021. The soaring demand stretched supplies and raised the prices of silicon, the raw material for PV products, to a high of 308 yuan ($42.41) per kilogram, the highest in a decade. China’s production capacity for silicon is expected to exceed 1.2 million tons at the end of this year, and to double to 2.4 million tons next year. Silicon products are largely made in Xinjiang, the world’s most important production base for polysilicon where Muslim Uyghurs are used as labor and coal-based electricity is generated at an extremely low cost of 3 cents per kilowatt hour, which explains why China’s solar PV prices are so low. China uses cheap coal electric generation to make energy intensive polysilicon essential to the solar panels they export to the world.
The International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Program estimates that 173.5 gigawatts of new solar capacity was installed globally in 2021. According to Gaetan Masson, co-chairman of the European Solar Panel, without trade disruptions as occurred in the last two years, the worldwide solar PV market could reach 260 gigawatts in 2022.
Solar and wind farms are sold on the idea that they are renewable. However, hundreds of communities around the world are currently fighting solar power because they require 300 to 600 times more land than other energy sources, produce 300 times more toxic waste, and devastate critical wildlife habitats. In the United States, there are 67 solar rejections so far this year. Since 2017, 94 communities across the United States have rejected or restricted Big Solar.
The standard for comparing costs of electricity sources is the “Levelized Cost of Electricity,” which is calculated by adding up the total costs of a source over its lifetime and dividing it by the total energy expected from that source over its lifetime. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the levelized cost of solar PV is $36.09 per megawatt hour—the least expensive of the slate of technologies that the agency considers. However, that cost does not include factors such as the cost of storing power when they are not producing (~65 percent of the time) and the cost of replacing solar panels when they wear out—much sooner than coal, natural gas or nuclear generating technologies whose lives are about 3 times longer.
The “full cost of electricity” should include those factors. For example, according to EIA, the levelized cost of battery storage is $124.84 per megawatt hour—3 to 4 times more than the levelized cost of solar PV. When those other costs are factored in, solar PV clearly is not better than natural gas, whose combined cycle levelized cost is $37.05 per megawatt hour and needs no battery storage as it can operate around the clock, on demand.
The Failure of Europe’s Climate Policy
Europe should have learned from the failure of its climate policy by now and halted its reckless drive into intermittent renewable energy. But, judging by the above solar PV purchases, that is not the case. Europe’s reckless transition to renewable energy can be seen from a new report that describes the economic impact of Europe’s climate policies, including:
- The European Union (EU)’s residential electricity prices are 80 percent above the rest of the G20, EU’s industrial prices are 30 percent above those of the G20, and EU’s residential natural gas prices are double those of the G20.
- Carbon dioxide abatement costs are many times higher than even the high-end estimates of the social cost of carbon, suggesting that the economic harm of the EU’s carbon mitigation policies is higher than the projected cost of climate change.
- Employment in European wind and solar industries has fallen since 2008, as the equipment is now purchased from China. The only area of renewable job growth is in biofuels—cutting down trees and making ethanol from food products. Biofuels are also responsible for much of Europe’s toxic air emissions.
- Europe’s high energy prices have reduced electricity consumption, which may not be a good thing because quality of life is closely correlated to energy consumption and energy consumption is the main determinant of health and environmental quality.
The European Union appears to be continuing its bad policies, learning nothing from the energy crisis it is in. The Netherlands, which is home to one of the world’s largest natural gas fields, is dotted with wind turbines and solar farms. In 1959, one of the world’s largest natural gas fields was discovered under a roughly 350-square-mile expanse of farmland and picturesque villages in the province of Groningen. The find spurred the construction of extensive pipeline networks, and provided the Netherlands and neighboring countries with cheap energy for decades. But with the energy transition, Groningen’s gas production is largely closed, and so far not reopening which, according to critics, does not make sense during an emergency.
Instead, the Netherlands invested in LNG infrastructure. Executives compressed into months what normally would have been years of negotiations, regulatory approvals and construction to obtain the pipelines, piers and other infrastructure needed to import liquefied natural gas when the fear of a natural gas cutoff from Russia was imminent. The Dutch facility has two floating LNG terminals — leased vessels that turn the chilled liquid delivered by oceangoing tankers back into a vaporous gas, which can then be sent via pipelines to other parts of Europe. While the Netherlands will probably have enough natural gas resources to get through the winter, pipeline bottlenecks may make it difficult to supply other parts of Europe with gas.
Environmentalists fear that governments will “learn the wrong lesson” from the crisis and its growing reliance on LNG, putting near-term energy security first and putting off climate change policies. To continue with the net zero program, however, residents will need to afford electric vehicles and heat pumps for their homes, which will be difficult because of the inflationary increases in their bills for energy, food and other essentials. Moreover, fewer of them will be employed as large swaths of European industry have stopped producing owing to high energy prices. Benchmark European futures prices for natural gas have fallen recently, but they are still about eight times the levels of two years ago, before the crisis began. The Netherlands and other European countries have had to put in place other emergency measures, including allowing coal-fired power plants to ramp up to have the electricity needed to get through this winter.
Europe’s transition to renewable energy and net zero carbon is not working, except to make life hard on average European citizens. While the continent is now obtaining LNG and allowing coal-fired plants to operate, it is still purchasing solar PVs from China to continue and speed the transition to renewable energy. Nonetheless, environmentalists are worried that the continent will put security before climate policy in the future.
Unfortunately, this is the same fate that Americans have to look forward to under President Biden’s climate policies. Because the United States has oil and gas fields on state and private lands, the United States is still producing energy. So, while U.S. energy prices have risen with Biden’s moratoria on leasing on federal lands and his increased royalties and rents, production here is increasing but at a lower rate than demand, causing energy prices to increase for Americans. Biden can change that by just putting back the energy policies that existed before he became President. Europe is the “canary in the coal mine” for what has turned out to be disastrous energy policies. Americans will begin to see this winter the fate that awaits them if Europe’s policies continue to be adopted here.