At the moment, many people are very worried about energy security in Germany. Is that being reflected in greater demand for solar panels?
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, there was a trend for people to improve their own properties and upgrade the energy systems in their homes. This started in 2019 and, at the time, it resulted in astounding growth in the demand for solar modules for domestic use. Since the spring, the industry has been given another massive boost by the rising prices and the discussions about the war in Ukraine. We have just carried out a representative survey on the subject, which showed that one in every six homeowners in Germany is planning to install solar panels for generating energy or heating over the next twelve months. Some of these plans will, of course, not become reality, but the survey indicates how much interest there is in solar energy systems at the moment.
What are the current lead times for ordering solar modules and for booking the electricians who fit them?
That varies from region to region. On the one hand, there are supply bottlenecks for solar panels and, on the other, the companies installing them also do not have enough capacity. This means that the waiting times are now much longer. You have to look hard to find a company that can install a solar system this year. But the positive aspect of this is that, as a result of the new messages coming from the German government, more and more electricians are showing an interest in this area and sending their employees on training courses. There is a lot of potential here, because only around a quarter of electrical companies are currently able to install photovoltaic systems.
Setting up your own photovoltaic panels and becoming independent of the grid is an appealing prospect. Would that be possible?
In Germany we have a well-developed electricity grid, so the goal of the solar industry is not for everyone to become fully self-sufficient in electricity. But a higher level of self-supply does make sense, because sector coupling is becoming increasingly important. That means using the photovoltaic system to run a heat pump in your house or to charge your electric car. It will pay off for the owner of the solar panels and can also reduce the amount of grid expansion needed.
Batteries allow you to store the electricity you have generated. How widespread are solutions of this kind?
The use of batteries in a domestic and commercial context began around ten years ago. Today there are around half a million of them in Germany and more than half of all new photovoltaic systems are now installed together with a battery. This allows the operators to use their own solar electricity around the clock. Generally they are designed to provide enough electricity for one or two days. The cost of the batteries has fallen significantly, in the same way as with the photovoltaic systems, where we have seen a price drop of around 75 percent over the last 15 years.
How happy are you with the political situation regarding photovoltaics in Germany?
First of all, we are very pleased that people in Germany are very open to photovoltaics. Surveys regularly show that they are the most popular form of energy system. In addition, the considerable demand indicates that people from all areas of society are interested in this type of electricity generation. We now also have cross-party support from politicians. The current plan is to achieve a photovoltaic generation capacity of 215 gigawatts by 2030. The existing figure is 60 gigawatts. This puts everything on a quite different scale and could result in photovoltaics supplying around 30 percent of our electricity needs in ten years’ time. At the moment, it is around ten percent.
There was once a flourishing photovoltaics industry in Germany, partly due to state subsidies. Now most of the companies have migrated to China. Is a renaissance likely?
That is a very interesting question. Germany had a very strong energy policy, particularly in the 2000s, and is largely responsible for the technology being so far advanced. We made a very important contribution, which makes it all the more regrettable that we rather lost our nerve around ten years ago. We put the brakes on at the very moment when China came on board. The Chinese realized that solar energy is the oil of the new millennium and made massive investments in the industry. For this reason, many companies either moved to China or went into liquidation. But I am optimistic that we can have a strong European photovoltaics industry in the future, provided that the political will is there. Increasing automation is reducing labor costs, while, at the same time, transport costs are becoming a more important consideration. The background conditions have improved for us and the political awareness has also increased. Even if the international division of labor remains, we should still aim to manufacture our own European products along the entire supply chain.