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Europe is importing a solar boom. Good news for (nearly) everyone

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A banner running down the side of the European Commission’s headquarters in Brussels depicts cartoon workers recladding its 13-floor façade with solar panels. The illustration might come across as a cruel joke to residents of the Belgian capital, for whose leaden skies the phrase “fifty shades of grey” could have been coined. But thanks to green edicts devised by the Euro-wallahs at the commission, the continent’s fields and rooftops are being paved with very real photovoltaic cells. In 2023 the equivalent of one nuclear reactor of solar power was installed every single week. In the past three years nearly as many panels have been plugged into EU power grids as had been since the industry dawned at the century’s start. By 2030 the bloc is aiming to triple the number of solar panels installed, thus covering an area bigger than 300,000 football pitches, two dozen times the size of Paris.

The sizzling solar sector has been an unexpected ray of hope for a continent still reeling from the cut-off of Russian gas. But amid the cheering some are squealing for help. Companies that make solar panels in Europe are teetering on the brink of failure; the outlook for them is not so much cloudy as apocalyptic. For the European solar boom is in truth a repackaged Chinese one: 95% of modules installed in the EU are imported from the world’s dominant producer, which can churn them out at unbeatable prices. This makes policymakers anxious. Part of the case made to voters sceptical of the need for an economy-disruptive ecological transition was that going green would do more than merely fend off climate change. It was also meant to make Europe more resilient—less dependent on Russian gas, say—and create lots of new jobs. Does meeting ecological targets with containers full of Chinese solar panels merely change the autocratic regime Europeans will depend on, and crush employment to boot?

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