LITTLETON, Colorado - Solar power is a key driver of Europe's energy transition away from fossil fuels, with solar capacity growing by more than twice the pace of wind capacity since 2018 as governments and utilities across the region accelerate green energy roll-outs.
Installed solar capacity in Europe has jumped by 88% since 2018, dwarfing the 35% rise in wind capacity over the same period, and in 2022 accounted for 24% of Europe's clean energy generation, versus wind's 26%, data from think tank Ember shows.
Further rapid growth in solar capacity is expected in the coming years thanks to massive government support, and could result in solar power overtaking wind as the primary source of Europe's clean electricity within the coming decade.
However, nearly 60% of Europe's installed solar capacity is located in northern European countries such as Germany, The Netherlands, France, Belgium and Scandinavia, which are often cloudy and have reduced daylight during winter, which results in relatively low solar power yields compared to other areas.
As a result, much of the next phase of growth in Europe's solar capacity is likely to take place across the southern parts of the continent, which are better suited than the north for large scale solar power generation thanks to far more year-round sunshine, and often more land that can be used for utility-scale solar plants.
A useful measure of how suitable an area is for solar power production is the so-called practical solar photovoltaic (PV) output potential (PVOUT).
The PVOUT metric is a measurement of the power output achievable by a typical utility-scale PV system, taking into account local land use constraints and the amount of solar radiation available to generate power.
According to the Global Solar Atlas, "the PVOUT represents the amount of power generated per unit of the installed PV capacity over the long-term, and is measured in kilowatthours per installed kilowatt-peak of the system capacity (kWh/kWp)."
A ranking of European countries by this metric shows that Spain has nearly 50% greater solar potential than Germany, which is by far the region's largest solar producer. [Related column: The top global solar power potential hotspots]
Spain's PVOUT reading of 4.41 kWh/kWp is the highest in Europe, and compares to 2.96 for Germany, 2.86 for The Netherlands, and 2.84 for Denmark and Sweden, according to data published by the World Bank and SolarGIS.
In 2022, Spain had 20.52 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar power, according to Ember. That compares to more than 66GW in Germany, and 22.6 GW in The Netherlands.
However, Spain's capacity growth of 190% since 2018 is among the highest in the continent, and the country's growth pace looks set to continue exceeding the regional average thanks to new and more aggressive climate-related ambitions being considered by the Spanish government.
Expanded solar capacity is a key feature of those plans, with French energy firm TotalEnergies announcing this week that it received environmental permits for 3 gigawatts of solar capacity across 48 planned plants in the Madrid, Murcia and Aragon regions.
Neighbour Portugal, which also scored highly in terms of PVOUT, is also planning rapid renewable energy expansion, with the country's largest utility EDP in March saying it will spend 25 billion euros ($27 billion) over four years to nearly double its renewable energy capacity to 33 gigawatts (GW) by 2026.
Andorra, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria also have relatively high PVOUT scores thanks to abundant sunshine as well as suitable pockets of land that could be deployed for use as solar farms, and are all expected to see large government support for solar projects in the coming years.
In combination, these batches of projects could help push southern Europe's share of solar capacity sharply higher from the roughly 26% share of Europe's total capacity in 2022, and help put the south on the map as a key new frontier for Europe's solar power generation over the coming decades.
(By Gavin Maguire; Editing by Christopher Cushing)