Through the Glasses of Innovation: Solar energy technologies for a European solar future

By Professor Vladko Panayotov, MEP (ALDE, Bulgaria)
Autumn 2012

Energy supply from the sun is virtually inexhaustible. Harnessing this inexhaustible energy potential can be largely beneficial in securing EU energy supply and in delivering sustained growth. Furthermore, it can be instrumental in meeting EU climate change objectives even in times of financial difficulties. However, the raw materials' supply necessary for harvesting the most power out of solar energy is exhaustible. The solar future Europe envisions will heavily depend upon the security of supply of the critical materials for the development of the very same advanced solar energy technologies necessary to transform this ambitious vision into reality. Research and innovation in solar energy technologies will be the ones that will make or break the deal for Europe's solar power.

Fostering continuous and well targeted innovation along with research and development in solar energy technologies will be critical in meeting the challenge of strategic metals' availability for Europe and in carving a way out of the crisis of dependence on raw materials for the production, development and commercialization of solar energy technologies. An increasing participation of solar energy in the EU energy mix up to 2050 coupled with limited global supplies of critical metals, which are building blocks of PV solar cells and which Europe imports mostly from third countries, means an increasing risk of overdependence on imports of strategic raw materials for the production of PV technologies in the foreseeable future. Unless Europe develops viable substitute technologies and materials to mitigate the increasing risk of being affected by supply-chain bottlenecks related to the usage of these critical raw materials, basing its low-carbon future upon import dependence of resources
means a 'death sentence' for that future.

The highest risk for security of supply is associated with several critical metals (tellurium, gallium, indium, sellenium among others) whose demand is expected to rise significantly in the mid- to long-term as solar energy technologies get deployed on a larger scale across Europe and globally. Within the context of increasing global demand for these materials, supply concentration in very few countries and geopolitical risks, the real constraints on the supply of strategic elements like tin, silver, selenium, cadmium, copper and aluminium become even more obvious and may endanger the production of solar technologies that predominantly use them.

While the development of alternative technologies is crucial to address these technological risks, it is not a silver bullet either due to constraints of metals' properties, supplies, extraction costs, and efficiency of energy conversion within applications. Crystalline PVs and thin film technologies currently dominate the market utilizing combinations of strategic metals like cadmium telluride, copper indium diselenide, copper gallium diselenide
etc. Research and innovation would be thus crucial for finding substitutes for these critical materials in solar cells and for developing optimal and efficient technological solutions. Innovation allows alternative and emerging technologies to develop without picking winners and proliferating path-dependencies; the case with solar energy technologies development shows for the moment a tendency of complementarities of different options in terms of benefits and drawbacks.

Emerging technologies like combined PV and thermal collectors, Concentrating solar power (CSP) applications, and solar heat for industrial processes are still at a demonstration or development phase but adequate policy and financial incentives for innovation can provide enough impetus to make them fully competitive in the near future. Organic cells which are still a niche market can offer further efficiency improvements for harnessing the most out of sun energy. Altogether, research and innovation into alternative materials and modern technologies can increase efficiency, bring down energy demand, and decrease prices for solar energy technologies which in the longer run will translate into lower costs for production, deployment and commercialization of solar PV and will make them competitive with other energy technologies.

Last but not least, research and innovation into the area of recycling solar panels is very important if Europe is to mitigate the risk of loss of precious metals (silver, gallium, indium, germanium), tackle its import dependence for these materials and eliminate negative impacts on the environment, such as leaching of toxic metals like cadmium and lead out of solar panels. Increasing the recovery rates of critical materials used in solar technologies and encouraging more efficient practices for primary production and by-product separation and recovery of some primary metals (like zink, copper, or aluminium for extracting tellurium, indium or selenium) are both vital in preventing waste of precious resources and in encouraging efficiency and sustainability of European industry. This type of innovation requires substantial additional research and investments in order to deliver advanced and efficient separation and recycling processes and technologies and to improve the recycling capacities and culture across Europe. Recycling and reuse can be effective mitigation strategies and some low-hanging fruits can be already reaped by encouraging more effective collection and sorting systems.

A holistic approach to innovation is crucial in order to address the problem of potential bottlenecks due to scarcity of critical raw materials for solar power. The EU should ensure a stable and predictable regulatory framework that supports simultaneously research and innovation along the entire value chain, from fundamental and applied interdisciplinary research, to development, demonstration and diffusion, and their technical connection to the energy grid system, keeping the long-term supply dilemma in mind.

Europe needs to invest strategically in innovation by pooling together the knowledge and financial capital it already has and by encouraging stronger cooperation between academia and businesses in order to bridge the "valley of death" for solar energy technologies. More efficient instruments for leveraging capital and for fostering development of these technologies will provide further stimulus to innovative ideas and projects that can make a difference. Only then could Europe capitalize on its scientific and research capabilities and realize the full potential of innovation. Innovation, supported by long term objectives and milestones, will be the centripetal force holding the EU solar vision together with all its building elements reinforcing each other.

Europe needs to put on the innovation glasses in order to see clearly the details of its solar future; it can't afford nearsightedness when it comes to
creating this long-term solar vision. These glasses cost a lot, but without them there is no vision.