Europe's under-exploited solar industry is about to experience a new dawn

The solar energy sector has changed beyond recognition even in the past six years. The bright dawn of solar panels has made a dark night for coal-fired power stations. Emboldened
by backing from magnates Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, the US has seized on solar
and, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the US now has 21.3 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity, "enough to power 4.3 million American homes". It adds that: "51% of new electric generating capacity came from solar in Q1 2015."

China has also gone heliotropic. With plans for cleaner, more reliable energy sources than oil and coal, China wants to double world solar energy production within two years. Hanergy, the world's largest thin-film solar power company based in Beijing, is doing its bit by supplying IKEA, which has installed 700,000 solar panels worldwide.

Europe, however, has yet to see the light, partly due to cuts in subsidies. Cloudy Britain installed more solar capacity last year than any of its warmer European neighbours. Now a new company will float in London this month specifically targeting Europe: NextEnergy European Solar will raise €300m to invest in utility-scale solar energy assets in the sunnier parts of the EU.

This radiant ascent is thanks to improvements both in solar efficiency and in energy storage. If we can meet all our household power needs from solar panels on our roofs, and somehow store it, then it's goodbye national grid. Elon Musk announced earlier this year that Tesla, his company, will sell large lithium batteries designed to do precisely that.

The issue is cost: panels and batteries are still expensive. The cost-benefits of Musk's vision are unclear, since the break-even point would lie way into a peerless future. A critical moment will be reached when the costs of solar reach parity with those of the national grid. According to a report by Barclays last year, Hawaii has already reached that point. California will attain it in 2017; New York will follow in 2018.

No one knows precisely how solar's market dynamics will play out. Two things are certain. The first is that nothing in business moves in a straight or even predictably crooked line. There are many factors that may hinder or hasten solar: take your pick of energy storage, governmental subsidy and smart metering systems that allow us to check the price of power before boiling the kettle. Then there is the politically charged question of how national grids will function and fight back in an environment of decentralised energy generation, in which households are both consumers and producers of power. The second certainty is that the sun will rise in the morning.