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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Solar Boost for Greece

Air Date: Week of September 16, 2011

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Greece has been suffering from spiraling unemployment and excessive debt, but now the Mediterranean country may be have a bright spot on the horizon: solar. At a recent conference in Hamburg, Germany, the Greek energy minister announced the details of a new ambitious plan called Project Helios that would expand the nation’s solar energy and export to other nations. Deutsche Welle Radio’s Jonathan Gifford was at the conference and has the story.

Transcript

Well, just when things looked dim for the Greek economy, there is perhaps one bright spot on the horizon: solar. Deutsche-Welle Radio’s Jonathan Gifford attended the recent European Photovoltaic Solar conference in Hamburg, Germany and has our story.

GIFFORD: Ten gigawatts is a lot of electricity - just how big it is, is hard to imagine - it’s the size of five of the biggest coal fired power plants in the US. It’s also a little less than five times the output of the Hoover dam. And, it’s more than the annual the production of the national Greek electricity utility.

But 10 gigawatts is also the generating capacity of new solar plants the Greek government would like to install in an ambitious plan announced at one of the solar industry’s biggest tradeshows: EU PVSEC. Referring to the scheme as Project Helios, Greek energy minister George Papaconstantinou provided the first details of the plan, which, just a few weeks ago, had been little more than a rumor.

But, asking just how Athens plans to pull off the scheme, raises almost as many questions as it answers.

PSOMAS: Project Helios is just a concept at the moment. That was an idea born just a few weeks ago. There is nothing concrete yet. Actually, the presentation in Hamburg was the first ever document that we’ve seen about the project.

GIFFORD: That’s Stelios Psomas from HELAPCO, the Greek Solar Industry Association. His group met with the Greek energy ministry to discuss a plan. At this stage, the proposal is that Athens would work with the German government and solar industry to determine the investment required to install 10 gigawatts of solar energy capacity by 2050.

Of course, Greece doesn’t need all that electricity, but Germany, which aims to close down all of its nuclear reactors by 2022, could certainly put it to good use in one way or another.

PSOMAS: This is still a question: whether it will be physically exported, or how much of it will be physically exported to Germany or other European countries, and which part of it will be statistically exported, if you like, in the sense that, according to European legislation, member states can exchange green energy among them in order to reach their renewable energy titles.

GIFFORD: Psomas imagines that it will be a combination of the two. A limiting factor is the power lines - the grid - that connects Greece to the Balkans and then to central Europe. It wasn’t designed to export so much energy, and would require a serious upgrade to carry 10 gigawatts - this, of course, would require major investments - and with the liquidity crisis still gripping the Greek banking sector, funding isn’t always easy to obtain.

Aris Polychronopoulos, the general manager of Greece’s largest solar installer, BIOSAR, appears confident, however. He says that if only one industry could get a loan in Greece these days, it would probably be the solar energy sector.

POLYCHRONOPOULOS: So financing is still a problem, but through the fact that all the other aspects of Greek economy are getting worse, any money available from the banks, they are going for solar investments. So, I don’t see that there is a huge problem right now.

GIFFORD: Polychronopoulos adds that the growth in the Greek solar market is steady, which is advantageous when compared to the boom/bust cycle observed in Spain and the Czech Republic, both former darlings of the solar scene. He says that the fact that thousands of local businesses and households are installing solar panels is better than any one big energy export plan.

POLYCHRONOPOULOS: Things are going along well. And, there are megawatts per month which are being installed and connected in houses. At the same time, I think that now there are a lot of applications for rooftops commercial and industrial, so from Q4 into 2012, I think we'll see a lot of installations in rooftops in Greece.

GIFFORD: What do you think about the idea of Greece as a renewable energy exporter - whether it’s in real terms - down the wires - or this trading kind of idea within Europe?

POLYCHRONOPOULOS: You should ask our minister.

GIFFORD: While the Greek government’s concept gives some hope to the solar industry at a time when prices for photovoltaic modules are falling fast, and two major US manufacturers have declared bankruptcy, investors shouldn’t be getting too excited just yet. Everyone knows there’s plenty of sunshine in Greece, but equally there is also the knowledge of Greece’s uncertain public finances - that’s according to Karl Heinz Remmers, the founder of SolarPraxis AG, from Berlin.

REMMERS: It’s a good idea, and Greece is a brilliant place for photovoltaic, but claiming to realize such a project with money from the other European countries is absolutely impossible. Nobody will give them the money. I think Greece cannot afford to do something like this.

GIFFORD: So, while the potential - the sunlight and the political will - all seem to be in place, sorting out the nuts and bolts required to make project Helios light up Europe’s electricity grid and create jobs and business opportunities in Greece, will take a long time.
But, here in Hamburg on the last day of a solar trade fair, where most of the official discussion focused on how fast prices are falling, Greece’s 10 gigawatt dream is a ray of sunshine that’s certainly got delegates talking on the sidelines. Jonathan Gifford, Hamburg.


GELLERMAN: Deutsche Welle has a lot of illuminating stories about Europe and the environment. You can find the link at our website: loe.org.

 

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