Europe embarks on solar power 'revolution' to solve its energy crisis — and fight climate change

The Núñez de Balboa photovoltaic plant in Badajoz, Spain, is one of the largest in Europe.
The Núñez de Balboa photovoltaic plant in Badajoz, Spain, is one of the largest in Europe. With an installed capacity of 500 megawatts, this facility can supply clean energy to 250,000 homes. (Iberdrola)

Spurred by Russia’s war in Ukraine and its own pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, the European Union is aggressively ramping up its use of solar power, installing panels on everything from city rooftops to farmland.

In 2021, solar accounted for just 6% of electricity in the 27-country EU bloc, according to Ember, a climate and energy think tank. However, since Russia cut gas supplies in response to European sanctions over its war in Ukraine, solar has become the fastest-growing source of renewable energy on the continent this year. According to SolarPower Europe, a solar trade association, new solar projects are “set to overshoot even our highest deployment projections for 2022.”

“The EU generated a record 12% of its electricity from solar this summer, helping to avoid a potential €29 billion in fossil gas imports,” Hannah Broadbent, head of communications for Ember, told Yahoo News. And solar’s remarkable growth shows no signs of stopping in the EU, where SolarPower Europe estimates at least 40 gigawatts of capacity will be installed this year, enough to potentially power upwards of 30 million homes.

By comparison, solar contributed less than 3% of U.S. electricity supplies in 2021, although new incentives are prompting more American utilities to follow in European footsteps.

“There’s a massive solar boom in Europe,” said Matthew Berwind, agrivoltaics project manager at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, the largest applied research institute for solar energy in Europe. “It’s huge.”

Wind turbines spin behind a vast array of solar energy panels.
Wind turbines at a solar energy park near Prenzlau, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

From Portugal to Poland, the Netherlands to Greece, mammoth photovoltaic plants are spreading across fields and gliding across lakes, each facility providing enough electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes. Buildings are being constructed with solar-powered water heaters, photovoltaic windows and photovoltaic roof tiles. Solar panels are appearing atop government buildings, grocery stores, train cars and schools, and even farms are embracing novel sun-powered technologies to shield crops from hail and scorching sun while producing energy.

Mario Sánchez-Herrero, founder of the nonprofit solar cooperative Ecooo Energía Ciudadana, who is based in Madrid, told Yahoo News that small-scale generation is also making a big difference. “We're seeing a real revolution of solar in Spain,” he said, adding that small-scale energy production from panels installed at homes or from nearby buildings is generating “the extraordinary amount of two gigawatts per year." And the numbers, he said, are shooting up.

Russia and China have everything to do with the explosion of solar. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided impetus to cut dependence on Russian gas for electricity, while China’s manufacturing of photovoltaic panels has dramatically brought down the price. “The cost of solar-powered electricity dropped 90% in a decade, making it one of the cheapest sources of electricity today,” Dries Acke, policy director at SolarPower Europe, told Yahoo News.

In fact, a new study conducted by the Oslo-based energy research firm Rystad Energy concluded that, since prices have fallen so low, it would be 10 times cheaper to build new solar capacity in Europe than to continue operating gas-fired power plants.

An old woman in a scarf carrying shopping bags looks disconsolately down a rutted dirt road lined with a dilapidated apartment building. A pickup drives away in the distance.
A woman walks through the village of Arkhanhelske on Nov. 3 in the Kherson region, which was formerly occupied by Russian forces. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

But Europe’s dependence on China for solar equipment is a potential vulnerability. “China controls a lot of the minerals needed for solar installations and a lot of the manufacturing, which shifted to China over the last 10 years,” said Thorfinn Stainforth, a policy analyst at the Institute for European Environmental Policy. “The price has gone down — it’s very cheap now to get Chinese solar panels. But it's also not without some risks, as we’ve seen in terms of global supply chain disruption this year following COVID, and in terms of overreliance on individual countries for energy supplies.”

What’s more, solar has its limitations. “Solar on its own cannot be the solution,” Stainforth said, adding that it needs to be coupled with other renewable energies, like wind or hydropower, as part of an integrated electricity system. “When it's very dark, when it’s winter and when it’s night, solar is much less usable,” he noted. Even though solar installations are skyrocketing, some EU countries, including Italy, are lagging behind in building enough renewable generation to meet the EU’s goal of slashing greenhouse gases 55% by 2030, according to Ember.

Meanwhile, not everybody is a fan of “solar farms,” with millions of panels spread over thousands of acres, such as the new Francisco Pizarro solar plant in western Spain, which is currently Europe’s biggest. Ecooo’s Sánchez-Herrero, for one, thinks massive installations defeat the purpose of solar — which can be used by individual homes and communities to give them some energy independence from utilities. At the rate small-scale production is growing in Spain, he believes that his country can meet its renewable energy goals without another large solar plant.

An array of photovoltaic power panels at Abaste's El Bonillo Solar Plant stretches into the distance.
Photovoltaic power panels at Abaste's El Bonillo Solar Plant in El Bonillo, Spain, in 2015. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

“The big installations are owned by big companies, and they use investment funds,” often from foreign countries, he said. “People come in from other countries to make money in Spain, and we don't want this. We want to see energy communities that want cheaper energy and clean energy, and want to be the owners of the way they obtain the energy.”

Some, including former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss, are concerned about solar installations on land that could be farmed. This fall the government of the United Kingdom even briefly flirted with an effective ban on solar farms, based on concerns about arable lands and food security. However, the environment secretary who put the idea forward was fired after Truss’s fall from grace, and the initial signs from the new government suggest it will be more favorably disposed toward solar.

However, others are pleased about new megaplants, like the Pizarro solar field, which is capable of providing 590 megawatts of electricity to power 334,000 homes.

New plants are aiming to address biodiversity issues, said Acke of SolarPower Europe. He points to the planned Rezolv Energy solar plant in Romania — the first utility-scale solar project in Europe over one gigawatt. “What’s crucial, and what we see more and more, are the biodiversity and dual-land use benefits that this kind of project can support,” he said, adding that the Rezolv plant is planned to return poor-quality agricultural land to pasture, hosting sheep grazing and even beekeeping.

Traian Voineagu, on a ladder in front of a window under the eaves of a house, gets ready to install a solar panel.
A technician installs a solar panel in a home in Glod, Romania, that is not connected to the electrical grid. (Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images)

But the biggest buzz in Europe concerns solar’s newest applications in agriculture — namely agri-solar. In pilot projects, solar panels cover crops such as berries and grapes, generating electricity to help meet a farm’s energy needs. They also shield crops from the scorching sun, hailstorms and torrential rains, and ultimately help farmers generate two sources of income from one tract of land.

“Instead of looking at a single parcel of land as having only a single usage, agri-solar combines the agricultural usage with power production,” said Berwind of the Fraunhofer Institute, noting that this can nearly double the land use efficiency.

“In the face of global climate change, as we start to see more extreme weather events that impact agricultural yield — droughts, storms, hail — the photovoltaic side gives these farmers a more diverse income source,” he noted. “So if their agricultural product falls through one year because hurricane-level winds blew through or hail damaged their crops, then they still have a safe financial baseline from one year to the next.”

Currently being tried out in Spanish, French and German vineyards as well as Dutch fruit farms, agri-solar projects provided an installed capacity of two gigawatts of electricity, Berwind estimates, a figure he expects will double in the next year because projects are getting bigger. “Standard photovoltaic developers are taking it seriously and starting to install multiple megawatts of systems,” he said.

Slanting photovoltaic panels slope toward a row of vines.
The photovoltaic panels recently installed in a vineyard in Toledo, Spain, in a pilot agrivoltaic project can can shield grapes from scorching summer sun, helping to reduce evaporation and optimize use of rainwater. (Iberdrola)

Despite all the enthusiasm about solar’s big surge in the EU, outstanding challenges remain, among them Europe’s ability to bring more solar manufacturing back to the continent. Another is a shortage of workers able to install panels on roofs. Ecooo has had so many requests to add them to homes in Madrid that it has to turn away new customers. “We are telling everyone, ‘If you have kids who are unemployed, have them take a three-month course so they can make solar installations,’” said Sánchez-Herrero.

“In Spain, or Greece, in these countries where there's a lot of sun and a lot of youth unemployment, that could be a really good match,” Stainforth added.