“We cannot replace our dependence on Russian gas with a reliance on China for solar energy production.” Speaking is the European Commission official in charge of Europe’s energy-intensive industry. The man, Joaquim Nunes de Almeida, is working overtime these months. His job is to facilitate the decision of his political bosses to stop importing gas from Russia as soon as possible. He speaks of it as an “acute priority.”
Nunes de Almeida is fully committed to spurring the production of far more solar and wind energy in Europe. Whether it involves solar panels on the roofs of houses or the construction of large units in open fields, production has to increase by at least 20 percent.
“Our day-to-day work is to encourage the manufacture of solar panels continually,” the Portuguese said to a packed conference room at Brussels’ Radisson Hotel.
Nunes de Almeida is one of the main speakers at the Solar Power Summit, the annual lobbying event held by the European solar industry. A few hundred men and women are in the room who make their living from Europe’s green transition.
They are themselves the manufacturers of solar panels and the raw material silicon. But also present are the companies that install the panels and, of course, the dealers who try to sell solar power. There are plenty of advisors walking around who are experts in all kinds of financing models. The term’ blockchain’ is mentioned at a small stand-up table next to the enormous buffet.
Russia and China
Two words dominate in the conference room and its corridors: Russia and China. The unexpected war in Ukraine has thrown European Commissioner Frans Timmermans’ climate policy planning into disarray. Until a month ago, the European Union thought Russian natural gas could act as a transition fuel. While the gas would continue to flow through pipelines in the Baltic Sea, we would steadily increase the production of green energy. But this war is triggering a revolution. Before the end of the year, Russian gas imports must be cut by a third. And to make that possible, sustainable energy production, among other things, must be stepped up.
The biggest problem is that the ambition to go green will initially take Europe out of the frying pan into the fire. Independence from Russia implies dependence on China. “More than 90 percent of the chain involves China in one way or another,” says Tobias Bradis, among others. The German heads the silicon branch of the German multinational Wacker Chemie. A billion-dollar company with over 14 thousand employees around the world. His company single-handedly consumes 0.8 percent of Germany’s total power generation needed to manufacture high-grade silicon that forms the raw material for solar panels. To underline our dependence, he says, “Without China, we would not have any solar panels here.”
Over the past 15 years, China has established a dominant position in the global solar panel market. The Chinese state supports Chinese industrial manufacturing with vast sums of money and cheap power. The factories are located in Xinjiang and run possibly using Uyghurs as forced laborers.
How do we beat China?
How can we beat China is the question at the heart of the discussion between the Commission official and the CEOs who have to make the solar panels. We cannot compete in terms of price, but we can compete in quality. The Portuguese official employed by Timmermans aspires to revitalize the European innovative manufacturing industry.
Except that this is easier said than done. A European industry will not survive with only Europe as a market, and for it to become viable, European companies will need to dominate the global market. And that means we have to compete with China.
To make this political aspiration a reality, companies want support from the political establishment. That means lower energy costs in particular and the governmental assurance of stable import lines for crucial raw materials such as lithium and cobalt. Customers must also be willing to pay more for European products than they currently pay for Chinese imports.
Late May plan
“This is not simply a case of building a few new factories. This concerns the strategic position of Europe!” exclaims Salvatore Bernabei. He is the boss of Enel Green Power, an Italian multinational power company. Nunes de Almeida listens to this with a reserved expression. The Commission is willing to go far in supporting European industry, but “we are not going to take on board everything that you say,” he remarks. He invites the lobbyists in the room to keep in touch with him and his colleagues over the next few weeks. By the end of May, the plan should be ready on what the European Union is willing to do for green companies.
As it happens, one aspect was left out of the discussion. China is leading in the production of the silicon needed for solar panels and in the extraction of the raw materials to make that silicon.
Hence, independence from China means more industry in Europe and more mining. Fortunately, the earth’s crust is 27.5 percent silicon, so that the ore can be found almost anywhere.