A future for solar energy in the Netherlands: fact check or wishful thinking?

The subject of previous posts was a statement in the second energy fact check of the “factchecker energie” from the Energy Agreement of the SER (Social Economic Council of the Netherlands). The question that get answered in this second fact check is whether solar energy has a future in the Netherlands. This post will focus on how this is answered.

Reading the fact check, it appeared overly optimistic. As with other communication on renewable energy, the author only highlights the positives and ignores the negatives.

This is how the fact check continued (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

The central planning bureau (CPB) has recently published a report which concludes that solar energy will have a marginal role in the future European electricity supply and wind energy will play an important role. In the most optimistic scenario, solar power fills in up to 8% of the electricity demand. According to the analysis of the CPB, this is mainly because it is so difficult (expensive) to bridge the difference in summer and winter revenues.

Prof. Dr. Wim Sinke of ECN made several remarks on this CPB study. He points out that the CPB is too pessimistic about the cost of solar electricity and is still insufficiently sensitive to the rapid developments in the field of power-to-heat, power-to-gas and power-to-products. The CPB looks only to the electricity system, but not enough to what’s called system integration. By the way, the CPB points in his study also to its limitations, such as the fact that because of the followed methodology, electricity storage cannot properly be taken into account, and it indicates that follow-up study is needed.

If I understand that correctly, the CPB doesn’t believe that solar energy will have much of a future in the Netherlands, but the author of this fact check thinks otherwise. This because:

  1. the CPB is too pessimistic about the cost of solar power
  2. there are rapid developments in the field of solar energy
  3. electricity storage is not properly taking into account in the CPB report.

While that might all be true, it is only half of the story.

Further in the fact check, there was also a paragraph at the end that provided more details on the price of solar power (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

Beginning of this year, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems published an important study on the cost of solar energy. Fraunhofer expected that in the not-too-distant time solar power will be the cheapest form of electricity in many regions in the world: 4-6 ct/kWh in 2025 and 2-4 ct/kWh in 2050. The cost will be slightly higher in the Netherlands, but still can be competitive with other sources of electricity.

Although it is not sure that the author claims that it will be the cheapest in the Netherlands (only that it will be the cheapest in “many regions” in the world), the question arises why the CPB is so negative about the cost of solar (to the extend that it thinks it will only play a marginal role), while Henri Bontenbal (the author of this fact check) and Wim Sinke (the expert that is referred to) both assume that solar will be (one of) the cheapest form(s) of electricity generation.

Time to have a look at that report. This is why the CPB thinks that solar power will be too expensive (my emphasis):

In Europe, solar is a particularly difficult technology from a value perspective, given the low capacity factor due to Europe’s northern latitudes and frequent cloud cover as well as its profile relative to load, which is even more inconvenient than wind. In particular, solar provides zero capacity value given Europe’s winter evening peak in electricity load (driven by heating demand). While it is currently heavily supported by subsidies in several European countries, when carbon mitigation is efficiently priced, solar struggles to compete with other options even under default assumptions of rapid cost declines to $1000/kW by 2050. In the case of nuclear, its high capital costs become a significant penalty when the presence of wind in the system forces lower capacity factors on other technologies.

Which makes sense. Solar energy doesn’t contribute to the production of electricity in the peak hours during winter months. It was part of the subject of previous post. If solar energy doesn’t contribute to peak demand in winter, a dispatchable power source needs to fill that gap and will be not of much use in summer. No matter how much solar capacity is installed, it will not replace dispatchable (fossil fuel) power plants that will have to be available in winter months and have to be closed in summer months.

It is safe to state that solar panels will get ever cheaper over time, but it is only part of the cost of producing solar energy. The need for backup, resulting in economically not viable dispatchable power plants, is not attributed to the cost of solar energy, although it is a direct result of it.

The term “system integration” initially put me on the wrong leg. I first assumed that it meant “integrating solar energy into the grid”, but that didn’t make much sense. It was apparently something that this Sinke used in his response to the CPB study. There was no link to it, but luckily I found it easily.

This “system integration” was indeed partly integrating solar power into the grid (by for example producing gas using surplus electricity and using it when little or no solar energy is available), but was much more (making products or heating/cooling). However, none of those “rapid developments” were explained and when I looked how the response ended, it looks to me that he was not talking about current rapid developments (translated from Dutch, except last sentence, my emphasis):

If we continue doing efforts, the world of 2050 will have access to cheap electrolyzer cells and sustainable systems for large-scale production of fuels with electricity from renewable sources (based on new catalysts) and solar panels with an efficiency of 50%. About rechargeable batteries with unprecedented features, about highly efficient electric heat pumps for many applications, on compact heat storage systems, systems that directly convert sunlight into fuel and about all kinds of things that we still cannot even imagine.

Do we have guarantees that it comes to this? No, we don’t, any more than we have guarantee on success of CCS and huge amounts of sustainable biomass in a world with more than 9 billion people and growing economies. That is precisely why we need to continue with solar energy. Without message to contrary everything is possible. We really ain’t seen nothing yet.

That seems like the author heavily depends on future (rapid) developments in the area of solar technology.

To understand why the author refers to CSS and biomass: this response was not only a reaction to the CPB study claiming that solar energy will probably not have much of a future in the Netherlands, but also it was claimed that there could be a future for solar together with biomass or fossil fuels (coal) together with CCS. Sinke disagreed with this and stated that fossil fuels + CCS and solar energy + biomass are both difficult to achieve, as is the future developments in solar technologies, so then let’s just go for those solar technologies.

Which is rather short-sighted. I think there are at least two glaring logical fallacies in such reasoning. First, he assumes that the developments in solar technology are comparable with those of solar + biomass or fossil fuels + CCS. Which might be the case. Or not.

Secondly, with that kind of reasoning, everything is possible. For example, if we are as optimistic about the future, then for example why not go for nuclear? If we continue doing efforts in nuclear technology until 2050, who knows what will be possible by then. Or then why not go for the development of new fuels that have the advantages of fossil fuels, but not the disadvantages. There are undoubtedly many areas in which huge advances are to be expected when we continue to invest in them until 2050.

I have no problem believing that energy storage and a non-continuous use makes more sense for an intermittent energy source, but how likely are energy storage and power-to-production and power-to-heat in practice? Solar energy is currently mainly deployed in electricity production. Going for energy storage and other solar technologies will be very expensive. The reality is that the Netherlands (as is Belgium) is behind its schedule of the EU “renewable” energy targets, so I think is rather unlikely that the government will promote other technologies that don’t help them achieving this target.

The answer on the question whether solar has a future in the Netherlands seems more like the dream of those two authors, not what is happening in reality. Only the positive possible developments were highlighted and none of the things that make this future more unlikely. Okay, everybody is entitled to his/her dreams, but in a “fact” check I would expect a more balanced view.

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2 thoughts on “A future for solar energy in the Netherlands: fact check or wishful thinking?

  1. poitsplace

    Sounds like a pretty reasonable assessment. Solar is just a terrible choice for most of the industrial world (especially places like canada and northern europe) due to seasonal variation and the fact that it doesn’t meet the demand curve.

    The one optimistic statement they made however about not knowing about future developments is flawed. The problem with rooftop solar at this point isn’t the solar cells. Now the problem is that the bulk of the costs involved are old, mature technologies. So solar costs over time don’t look like a curve approaching some cost near zero. So the costs aren’t rapidly approaching a cost near zero, they’re rapidly approaching the near fixed costs of inverters and mounting hardware/labor. But of course, this isn’t really a criticism as he was simply making the reasonable observation that things can change.

    Reply

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