Europe’s Solar Energy Surge: A Promising Solution Or Just A Palliative?

Highlights :

  • Europe’s shift to solar power is marred by several geographic and international challenges, such as lack of solar irradiance and political instability in North Africa
Europe’s Solar Energy Surge: A Promising Solution Or Just A Palliative?

Europe is in the middle of its biggest ever solar build out currently, as it seeks to build more solar capacity for every reason from more energy security to clean energy. But can solar deliver for Europe? Is it the panacea to energy security in the long term? Or is it doomed to over promise and under deliver?

Solar for Europe

European countries are among the most active proponents of renewable energy, especially solar power. The recent geopolitical developments have exacerbated the concerns about the region’s energy security, further pushing countries to seek a shift to alternative energy sources – both geographically and technologically. Adding to arguments in favour of solar for Europe, European Market Outlook 2022-2026 asserts that solar is essential for the EU’s energy independence. A strong base of research into solar at European academic institutions, besides the significant experience of Germany itself as an early solar adopter, has also ensured a strong awareness of solar,

Even the International Energy Agency roots for Solar for Europe. IEA recommends that the EU install around 60 GW of solar power in 2023 to compensate for shortfalls in the Russian gas supply.

Furthermore, the proponents of solar for Europe argue that solar power is not only sustainable but also a cheaper energy source. As per one report by SolarPower Europe, European homes with solar PV and heat pumps installed saved up to 84 per cent on their household bills in 2022. In monetary terms, the savings were up to €3,700 compared to homes reliant on gas heating and without solar panels. Even if the gas prices drop down to pre-crisis (Russia-Ukraine) levels, solar PV and heat pump installations will still save households up to 73 per cent. In the more-probable scenario where gas prices stabilise at a higher level, Europeans will save up to 76 per cent.

With so much in favour, it looks like solar has the potential to solve Europe’s energy woes. However, some scientific facts and several studies showcase why solar may struggle to deliver at the kind of scale Europe seeks energy security

Is Solar Reliance Sustainable?

To begin with, the potential for electricity generation from solar photovoltaic sources in most countries trumps their current electricity demand. In a way, some countries are solar hotspots due to comparatively rich solar irradiation. Europe is not one of them. For instance, according to a World Bank report, the difference in average practical PV potential (PVOUT) between countries with the highest potential (e.g. Namibia in southern Africa) and the lowest (e.g. Ireland in the European region) is slightly less than a factor of two.

Source: World Bank - Global map showing practical solar energy potential after excluding physical, environmental and other factors

Source: World Bank – Global map showing practical solar energy potential


In simpler terms, countries in the middle east, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and others like Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Iran, Mexico, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Peru, have excellent conditions for solar PV. The daily output exceeds 4.5-kilowatt hours per installed kilowatt of capacity (kWh/kWp) – enough to boil around 25 litres of water.

In addition, high-potential countries tend to have low seasonality in solar photovoltaic output, meaning that the resource is relatively constant between different months of the year. Comparatively, most European countries score the average PVOUT below 3.5 kWh/kWp, dominated by the European countries (except for Southern Europe) but including also, countries such as Japan and Ecuador.

Global PVOUT

WB Group – Global PVOUT


North Africa to the Rescue

North African countries are making huge moves in exploiting their solar potential. Several mega solar plant projects are being developed, to export electricity to Europe through submarine cables.

European countries have plans to invest and profit from the huge solar potential of their neighbours to the south of the Mediterranean. For instance, a gigantic concentrated solar power plant, TuNur, near Tunisia plans to produce 4.5 GWh of electricity to export to Italy, France and Malta, through a transmission line that will link Tunisia with Europe via Italy. It is expected to bring down European CO2 emissions by five million tons per year.

In Morocco, the British company Xlinks has announced the construction of the world’s longest (3,800 km) maritime cable network by 2027, and the installation of a 10.5 GWh solar power plant to supply electricity to 8 per cent of the country’s UK’s electricity needs.

Egypt is also building a maritime electrical interconnection line with Cyprus and Greece. Algeria plans to supply clean electricity to Italy and beyond to Europe via a new submarine cable.

The geographical proximity has made it favourable for European countries to source their green energy, especially solar, from North African countries, which also have similar geographical and climate conditions to much of southern Europe.

The Flipside of The New Dependence

While Europe’s interest in North African nations is warranted due to several factors mentioned above, it risks simply shifting energy dependence to a different continent. The long term stability will depend on the political scenario there. It must be noted that political instability exists in the North African region too.

As per Statista, Libya has the lowest score in the political stability and absence of violence or terrorism index in North Africa, at minus 2.37 points – the country was considered completely politically unstable. Not just Libya, all the North African countries recorded negative index values. The post-Arabian Spring era witnessed the political situation and violence/terrorism risk worsening the most for Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. This must raise enough questions on the viability of energy dependence on the region for the long term. In addition, energy dependency is only shifting places but remains out of the European continent.

The developed world is walking on a tightrope and needs a serious evaluation of its energy plans if it wants to achieve long-term stability in the energy sector.

For Europe, it is unfortunate but the rush to exit nuclear power has proved to be a poor choice in retrospect. The high hopes on offshore wind are also threatened by many issues including lower than expected wind speeds, although costs is not the biggest one now. What the continent really needs to do is reassess energy efficiency measures in a big way, not just more sources of clean energy.

The continent will also need to look at a more united approach to both generation and storage, with the possibility of a continent wide grid not as impractical as it was a decade back or more. Lower energy storage costs have the potential to support optimal use of solar, besides building critical energy security for most of the continent.

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Junaid Shah

Junaid holds a Master of Engineering degree in Construction & Management. Being a civil engineering postgraduate and using his technical prowess, he has channeled his passion for writing in the environmental niche.