Last October, the Top team Energy asked me to take the lead in drafting a so-called Innovation contract Solar energy, a plan for a large public-private partnership. This task is as important as it is challenging, because the solar energy sector is broad and rather poorly organised at the moment. However, this was an offer I could not, and obviously did not want to, refuse.
After all, this is about the future of solar energy in the Netherlands and the future of ECN: the innovation contracts need to provide the framework for R&D in the Netherlands. Fortunately, Albert Hasper, CEO of Tempress Systems, an important supplier of production systems for the solar cell industry, was prepared to help me with my new assignment. And we were also able to rely on the enormous efforts of colleagues within and outside of ECN.
Amidst the more established energy sectors, it is important that the still young solar energy sector speaks with one voice and shows what it can do. The innovation contract offered an opportunity to do this. After intensive consultations between the industry, researchers and other stakeholders, we submitted a first version of the contract by mid December. Although solar energy comprises a wide range of techniques, we decided to focus on solar power (photovoltaic conversion; PV) and on the combined generation of solar power and solar heat. Other types of solar energy are covered by other contracts.
The general ambitions of the PV sector, which need to be realised through the implementation of the Innovation contract, are to boost the economy and make the energy system more sustainable. Concretely, this involves a growth in jobs from 2000 today to 10,000 jobs in 2020 and an increase in installed capacity of solar power systems from 100 Megawatt today to 4000 Megawatt (4 Gigawatt) in 2020. This ambition was supported by the intention of the private sector to invest 100 million euros in the next five years, provided that the Dutch government contributes sufficient public funds. That is impressive!
Blood, sweat and tears
Our first proposal was assessed for outlines and we were invited to submit the final contract on 15 February, containing further elaboration of the plans and firm commitments instead of intentions. After another round of intensive consultations with businesses, universities and other involved parties and a fair share of blood, sweat and tears, we were able to present a widely supported, high-quality and very ambitious contract. This performance underlines the fact that the solar energy sector is worth supporting. The Netherlands has been quite a small player in the deployment of solar power systems up to now, but our country does hold a global top position when it comes to knowledge and technology. The market for these systems may grow rapidly now that solar power is able to compete with the consumer prices of grey electricity. All the more reason to deploy our top position.
Support from unexpected quarters
While working on our contract, we received unexpected support from the report Solar Energy Perspectives of the International Energy Agency (IEA). This report contains the first in-depth IEA sector analysis and it sketches a bright future for all types for solar energy. It is also the first document that envisages a concrete role for solar fuels. It even describes a future in which half of all the electricity we use worldwide is covered by solar energy. For PV this translates into a growth of installed capacity with a factor 200. Obviously, this offers unprecedented opportunities... The Dutch solar sector is ready to seize these opportunities!
Whether or not the public-private partnerships targeted by the Dutch government will be more effective than the innovation approach has been so far remains to be seen. Still, the ‘pressure-cooking’ process of making plans together has resulted in a sense of urgency and an awareness of a joint interest that may work to everyone’s advantage, if we are able to hold on to the momentum.
Wim Sinke is Programme Development Manager Solar Energy at ECN