Solar panels remain profitable in Brussels and Wallonia

 

  • A lack of political transparency damaged the photovoltaic sector.
  • But solar panel users can still end up making money.
  • After a slump, is a recovery in the cards?

Is the solar panel sector really suffering a crisis, or worse, is it on its knees? That is the claim of the majority of Belgian installers, who have announced a wave of lay-offs and closures. However, an analysis of the latest data and prospects give grounds for optimism.

Flanders stymied

The most significant statistic to emerge over the past few years is undoubtedly the brutal halt that the industry has endured in Flanders. Barely 20 megawatts peak (MWp) were installed on the roofs of Northern Belgium over the first few months of 2013 compared to 860 MWp in 2011, which was 43 times higher! The figures are truly abysmal and as far as Flanders is concerned the fears regarding the sector are perfectly valid. The reason? The virtual elimination of annual subsidies. An individual must now produce over 3,500 kWh of green electricity to be able to receive a €93 subsidy, while two years ago the same individual collected €500 for the same level of output. This has clearly discouraged Flemish customers.

Brussels performing well

Every year, more and more homeowners opt for solar panels. The subsidies are relatively generous and guarantee a return on investment after seven years. But the roofs of the buildings in Brussels cannot be compared to the ones of the detached villas in the rest of the country. In the capital the total roofing area equals just 30 soccer fields, and annual production comes to around 25 GWh, a thousandth of what is generated on the Tihange 1 site. The solar phenomenon therefore, remains somewhat marginal in the Brussels-Capital Region.

Wallonia case more complex

In Wallonia public opinion and the image of solar panels have greatly deteriorated in the past few months. Observers blamed this on two factors: the lack of transparency and a disastrous political message. “The fact that a commitment was made to pay subsidies for 15 years, and two years later an announcement was published stating the subsidies would be reduced to 10 years, caused a serious loss of trust,” points out an analyst. “There’s no doubt either that the tricks used to hide the real cost of solar energy exasperated users in Wallonia.”

In fact, the travails of the Walloon photovoltaic industry were revealed by the press in February, and the hurried move to a transitional regime in April put the whole system in jeopardy. All of the available figures point to a clear drop in orders in April but for the first nine months of 2013 the Walloon numbers are not calamitous (more than 100 MWp installed). By looking beyond the record year (2012), one can see that the 2013 figures are very close to those recorded in 2011.

There are, though, grounds for optimism. By analyzing the current formula in Wallonia as well as the new plan due to come into effect in 2014, one thing becomes clear. In both cases the investment remains worthwhile, with an ROI within a maximum of eight years.

“The photovoltaic market is now closer to reality than in 2012,” says Philippe Delaisse, secretary general of Energie Facteur 4, a non-profit organization. “The market still exists, and has a definite future.”

If subsidies have decreased, it’s because technological advances have improved the panels’ outputs and reduced their cost. If they continue to progress in the same direction, someone installing panels in 2018 will doubtless no longer need subsidies to make money on their investment.

 

XAVIER COUNASSE

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