With all the bad economic news and political turbulence in the US, it's been easy to lose track of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, which appears to be spreading from smaller, peripheral countries like Greece to affect the banking systems of core European Union members like Italy and France. To read Paul Krugman's column in last Sunday's New York Times, Europe could be on the verge of another financial crisis on the scale of the one triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Aside from the global economic consequences of such an event, it would send ripples throughout the energy sector, affecting both conventional and renewable energy markets and participants. While such an outcome is far from certain, it's a worrying scenario to contemplate.
The 2008 financial crisis is a good place to begin looking for the implications of a potential 2011 credit crunch in Europe. Start with oil, which in the fall of 2008 slid from around $100 per barrel to below $40 by mid-December of that year. Of course oil prices had already retreated from a high of $145 that summer, as the weakening US economy and collapsing housing market slowed US demand for oil. Yet it's worth noting that despite their generally more efficient use of energy and higher consumer energy prices, the countries of Europe together import slightly more crude oil and petroleum products than the US does. And as I've noted before, the economies of the EU's Euro area have been partially sheltered from high oil prices by the strength of the Euro relative to the US dollar, in which most oil transactions are settled. Even without a full-blown financial crisis, a sharp drop in the Euro/dollar exchange rate resulting from sovereign debt worries would create a regional energy price spike that could further hamper the EU's growth and reduce its energy demand. OPEC appears to be preparing to trim output for just such an eventuality.
Next consider what happened to renewables, such as wind and solar power. Lending to renewable energy projects in the US dried up in late 2008, as credit became harder to obtain in general, and participants in "tax equity swaps" retreated. Without the generous renewable energy supports in the 2009 stimulus, wind turbine installations might have ground to a halt, and the expansion of solar manufacturing that has recently hit a rocky patch might never have occurred. European projects and suppliers weren't affected to the same degree, thanks to a combination of higher direct subsidies for renewables and robust lending from EU agencies such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Those protections look less dependable in a new crisis. European governments have been busily cutting renewable energy subsidies, and growth is already slowing, squeezing local firms like Germany's Q-Cells between a weaker domestic market and low-cost import competition from China and elsewhere. It's anyone's guess whether commercial lending to the renewable energy sector and loans from groups like the EBRD could be sustained in another financial crisis focused on the Eurozone.
A sudden contraction in European funding for renewable energy projects would be felt around the world. Suppliers in the US and Asia have relied on European sales of wind turbines, solar panels and components for much of their planned growth, and the further decline in equipment prices that would follow a big demand drop would leave all but the best-capitalized, lowest-cost competitors scrambling. And even as renewable energy growth has shifted in recent years toward developing countries and away from North America and Europe, Europe has remained the most important market for many of these technologies--particularly for solar PV and offshore wind power--just as Europe has retained the strongest focus globally on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions implicated in climate change. Every aspect of the global energy business has a big stake in the success of Europe's leaders in navigating through the current crisis, but none more than the renewable energy sector.