2 May 2013


Dutch 2020 targets "just an exercise for the real thing"

"Everything I have done professionally since 1980 has been related to solar energy."
What is your background and current position and how long have you already been active in PV?
I studied Physics at the University of Utrecht and did my PhD research at the FOM-Institute AMOLF in Amsterdam (PhD in 1985). After working at Hitachi in Japan as a post-doc and at AMOLF after that, I moved to ECN in 1990, where I still work with great pleasure. I have quite a few current positions, all of them part-time: Manager Program Development at ECN Solar Energy, Director of the TKI Solar Energy (the national Dutch innovation partnership on PV), professor at the University of Amsterdam, researcher and advisor at AMOLF, and Chairman of the European Photovoltaic Technology Platform. Everything I have done professionally since 1980 has been related to solar energy.


Who do you consider to be a ‘solar hero’? How has this person inspired you?
My solar hero is Frans Saris. He was my PhD supervisor and pulled me into PV when I was still a Masters student. This has colored my life and shaped my career. He has inspired me to go beyond what I considered to be my boundaries. Frans is a real visionary, interested in science ánd people, warm, outspoken, highly controversial, and much more. He is both loved and hated within the Dutch academic world.

What has been the biggest mistake in your career and what did you learn from it?
I would not call it a mistake, but a very important step towards discovering what really drives me. In 2003, I chose to become a program director at ECN. I expected to be able to combine science and management, but in reality this turned out to be impossible. I felt completely disconnected from what I liked in the first place: solar energy science, technology and applications. After a year I decided to stop and was extremely lucky to be able to return to the Solar Energy unit as a staff member. The simple, but very important, lesson I learned, was that I need to be directly working in the field of science and technology in order to be happy professionally, and that a management function alone is not enough.

"We have helped putting solar energy on the map"
What do you consider to be your biggest success in PV?
Although this is certainly the result of a team effort, I am proud that the solar energy department at ECN has grown from practically nothing, when I started in 1990, to some 80 experts today. ECN Solar Energy has become a true global player. Moreover, we have helped putting solar energy “on the map” as an energy option for the Netherlands. Perhaps my finest moment was when I received the European Becquerel Prize (Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839).

What do you see as the major trends and trending topics in the PV industry right now?

A major trend is that markets are moving from an incentive-driven to a self-sustained basis, however ill-defined and inaccurate those terms may be, and how unsustainable current price levels may be. Another trend is something euphemistically called ‘industry consolidation’. In fact is a chaotic process and a disaster for many people and companies involved and we may lose many valuable things while it happens. A trending topic is the threat of a trade war. I sincerely hope we can prevent it from really escalating.


Do you see any new disruptive technology developments cooking in the lab that will disturb the dominance of crystalline silicon solar in the coming decade?

There are many developments cooking in the lab. However, most of them cannot yet be called “technology”. Since module efficiency is becoming increasingly important for system economy, it is unlikely that an “out of the blue” technology will challenge crystalline silicon. Nothing really new starts at 20% efficiency on large areas and at low cost. I expect the strongest competition to come from existing thin-film technologies as their efficiencies is increasing from 14% today to some 20% in the medium term.


"I sincerely hope that prices will not come down as rapidly as the costs"

Do you expect that the cost and price of solar cells and modules will continue to decline in the coming 5 years? To what extent?

Yes, costs will come down further. We are still far from the bottom. Reducing costs requires a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it can and will be done. However, I sincerely hope that prices will not come down as rapidly, because such a delay could enable the sector to restore margins, leave room for innovation and prevent a lock-in of technology that is unbeneficial on the long term.

Which issue do you consider to be heavily underestimated by the solar industry?
The sector is obsessed by costs and prices, an obsession which is largely driven by its customers. I am convinced that full sustainability and good aesthetics are also key success factors for the long term. In some cases this may raise upfront costs, but at the same time, as in many other fields of technology, it will reduce lifecycle costs and societal costs.

"Most people are not aware that 2020 targets are just an easy exercise for “the real thing”
As a technology expert, what is your vision on the business model of the future for solar energy? How do we reach the millions of customers that don’t have a PV system yet?
It may seem a surprising statement, but I don’t think we should want to reach all those millions on the short term and I don’t think we should suggest that PV is ready and done by 2020. By being ambitious (4 to 8 Gigawatts in the Netherlands in 2020) but at the same time very careful to ensure public support, we have a chance to move into the regime where PV really has impact. Most people are not aware that 2020 targets are just an easy exercise for “the real thing”. Business models keep us busy today, but in a decade from now PV will be as trivial as double glazing is today. PV will be very competitive for consumers and companies.

What is your vision on the possible impact of the EU import duties for Chinese PV modules? How will this impact the industry and market development these coming years?
I don’t think that generic import duties will really help anyone, although excessive situations are of course unacceptable. The European exporting PV industry will suffer if not perish because of retaliations. PV deployment will slow down. Most importantly, it will not help solving Europe’s problems related to competitiveness. We need to regain some sense of urgency,  eagerness, self-assurance and optimism that emerging economies still have. Moreover, we queue up to buy anything that is cheap, but we don’t see and accept the consequences of this choice. What we are faced with is part of the big global equilibration. Extremely painful, but nothing new. Instead of creating barriers we should better focus on rapid and ambitious innovation and on total quality labeling.

How disruptive is PV? Do governments underestimate the impact? Are they still in control?
PV is disruptive in the sense that is very different from everything we’re using today. However, the large-scale deployment of PV will have to make use of the existing infrastructure. It may disrupt current business models and the division of roles in the energy sector, but it will challenge the energy system rather than disrupt it. Exploring the frontiers of PV deployment - like Germany does – will lead to a wealth of technical and non-technical solutions and drive drastic changes within the system. Some may call this disruption, I prefer to call it system innovation. Governments and other parties alike generally underestimate the rate at which changes (can) occur, not the potential impact. As a consequence there is more reaction than pro-active policy making and seizing of opportunities. PV takes many people by surprise.

"It will no longer have to rely on government interventions."
Look into your crystal bowl: what does the market for PV look like in 2020?
It will be very big (cumulatively entering the terawatt scale), it will be much better balanced than today (many countries and regions contributing instead of just a few) and it will be composed of a variety of segments (from kilowatts to Gigawatts, integrated and ground-based, etc.). Perhaps most important, it will no longer have to rely on government interventions.



Wim Sinke will be one of the keynote speakers at The Solar Future: NL '13 conference on 23 May in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. For more information, please check:

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