Chinese, Germans Seek to Turn Chernobyl Wasteland to Solar Park

Chinese and Germans are among dozens of investors taking Ukraine up on its offer to turn the grounds of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters into a massive solar park.

Thirteen international investors are among the 39 groups seeking Ukraine permission to install about 2 gigawatts of solar panels inside the radioactive exclusion zone surrounding the defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant, according to Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Ostap Semerak. Two gigawatts is almost the capacity of two modern nuclear reactors, although atomic power unlike solar works day and night.

“We have received requests from businesses that are interested in renting land for building solar power stations,” Semerak said in a phone interview from Kiev. “We are not looking to profit from land use, we are looking to profit from investment.”

Three decades after the Chernobyl meltdown displaced over 300,000 people by scattering radiation across large swathes of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, authorities are still trying to figure out what to do with the piece of land twice the size of Los Angeles that surrounds the plant. Radiation that will linger in the soil for centuries means the area can’t be used for agriculture or forestry. Solar tapping into Chernobyl’s existing grid infrastructure emerged as a possibility in July.

Lowering Rents

Chinese companies GCL System Integration Technology Co Ltd. and China National Complete Engineering Corp said in November that they plan to build a 1 gigawatt solar project on the site in several stages. A German renewables developer has applied to install 500 megawatts, Semerak said, declining to name the firm. The remaining project proposals are for plants that are about 20 megawatts in size.

Companies “have requested between 20 hectares and 1,000 hectares for projects,” Semerak said. In a push for foreign investment, Ukraine has lowered the rent charged for state property by 85 percent, he said.

For Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest countries, the project is about more than just reclaiming land. Plagued by corruption and a simmering conflict with pro-Russian groups in the east, the government wants to bolster the economy with new investments and establish energy independence outside of Russia’s orbit.

The country set up a feed-in-tariff system running through 2030 that offers a fixed price which is reduced annually. Projects that sign on in 2017 will receive 17 euro cents (18 U.S. cents) a kilowatt.

Striking Balance

The transmission lines originally laid to relay electricity from the 4-gigawatt Chernobyl nuclear plant will be re-purposed for solar power under Ukraine’s plan. The government is currently looking into how the existing grid can handle the intermittency challenges posed by renewables. The ecology ministry is also seeking to strike a balance between its clean energy ambitions and the impact on consumer bills, Semerak said.

While sunnier than Germany, an early adopter of renewable energy with 39 gigawatts of installed solar plants, Ukraine may struggle to emulate its green financing model. German electricity users are obliged to support renewable power in their monthly bills and last year paid a record 25 billion euros — equivalent to almost a third of Ukraine’s $90.6 billion economy.

The lingering radiation at Chernobyl is a concern of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which is considering whether to finance the solar projects. Loans will be contingent on environmental due diligence, according to spokesman Anton Usov. The projects would have to be safe to install and operate and also be commercially viable to receive funding, he said.

“For any project above 10 megawatts in size, you would need someone on-site almost every day,” said Pietro Radoia, solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The bigger the project, the more daily small issues come up that have to be dealt with.”

Companies that have applied to install solar power in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are from China, Germany, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, Bulgaria, Belarus, as well as Ukraine, according to Semerak.

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