An American-Dutch solar energy firm, GiraSolar, is in talks with anonymous Turkish partners to build Europe’s biggest – and Turkey’s first – solar energy plant and mass produce solar panels there, the company announced recently.

The venture has subsequently elicited conflicting opinions from Israeli solar experts.

The proposed plant intends to provide an estimated 100 megawatts of energy through a group of “sub-plants” on a 2,000-square meter plot of land, at a location that GiraSolar would not disclose.

Although the company has installed solar panel systems on various individual buildings in Turkey since 2004, this will be its first venture there of such a huge capacity, according to Wieland Koornstra, CEO of GiraSolar.

Thus far, the largest working European solar plant is a 71- megawatt facility in Rovigo, Italy, according to Bloomberg. For GiraSolar, Koornstra explained, Turkey was the perfect spot to erect a huge plant, not merely because of its consistently strong sunshine.

“Everywhere in Europe there are restrictions on the size – like in Italy, anything over one megawatt will be very difficult in the future – and that’s really happening everywhere,” Koornstra told The Jerusalem Post. He noted, however, that there are fewer restrictions in Germany – but far less sun than in Mediterranean coastal nations.

“Countries for larger projects will be in Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece,” he continued. “Turkey is a country that is virgin land – this hasn’t been done yet there. It will be the largest scale power project for the grid. Turkey is a country where if you have the right spot for your plant, it will be feasible without any incentive.”

Meanwhile, Koornstra also sees Turkey as his company’s way of branching out into the Middle East, adding that “Israel is interesting” to him, as well as Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Though perhaps not a game-changer in terms of large-scale nationwide energy needs, such a project will certainly benefit Turkey – a country that between 1999 and 2008 was increasing the rate of electricity requirements by a rate of 9.5 billion kilowatt hours per year.

According to Dr. David Faiman, chairman of the department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics at Ben-Gurion University’s Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research in Sede Boqer, director of Israel’s National Solar Energy Center and chief scientist at ZenithSolar, Turkey will probably generate around 220 billion kilowatt hours in 2011.

“On this scale, a single 100 MW PV project – even though it would be the largest in Europe – would offset only two percent of the annual rise in Turkey’s electricity production,” Faiman said. “That is to say, Turkey would need to install about 50 such photovoltaic plants each year in order to enable her to cease the ever-increasing construction of conventional power plants.

By establishing a local photovoltaic industry, Faiman explained that the government would then be able to undertake further projects, and add more photovoltaic plants each year.

“We are in the preparation stages – it’s our absolute aim to realize this project,” Koornstra said. “It’s also an absolute must that the manufacturing takes place in Turkey, because the feed-in tariff is linked to manufacturing.”

Like Israel, Turkey has a government issued feed-in tariff – money that the country’s electric corporation gives back to those who contribute solar energy to the grid. But Koornstra said that the payback system isn’t quite as attractive as it could be.

He explained that investors will make a profit on their investments only after about eight to nine years. Yet by using solar panels and other equipment produced in Turkey – rather than importing supplies – the company will get a bit extra out of its investment, he added.

“When you produce the panels in Turkey, you get an extra bonus on your feed-in tariff,” Koornstra said. “Basically they have the smartest law in Europe when it comes to feedin tariffs.”

However, a second Israeli solar expert, Rafi Kirshenboim, of Chinese-owned ET-Solar, said he does not see the merits of initiating such a project in Turkey.

“I believe that in order to build such a big photovoltaic plant, the natural partner will be a big [company] with experience and financial capabilities, and not GiraSolar,” said Kirshenboim, manager of his company’s Israel branch. He said he favors installing solar panels in smaller quantities, rather than in one large field.

“The real issues with big fields are that they use a lot of land space, they need a long, new transportation line of electricity that generates another strong electromagnetic wave and electricity losses,” Kirshenboim said. “The ‘good’ things about the big plants are that they are cheaper to build – so that the cost of electricity produced is cheaper – but if we go for this argument, the cheapest thing to do is build an atomic plant, like in Japan.

“You should not replace one mistake with another mistake – we need to go for a green-energy solution that does not ruin nature, and we need to look at what will be the benefits to the next generation – not just the damage to our wallet.”

Yet Koornstra believes in Turkey’s ability not only to erect such a large plant, but also to produce a sufficient amount of the panels to both export to Europe and compete with an overwhelmingly Chinese dominated market.

“Manufacturing of solar panels is largely automated,” Koornstra said. “The advantage that China has is that manual work is very cheap there. Electricity is also relatively cheap, and land is too, but it’s the same thing in Turkey. But there is one major advantage of Turkey – it is one week away in terms of transports [to Europe], and China is six weeks away.”

Faiman expressed hope that Koorsntra’s strategy of producing and exporting panels would work out.

“This would be a refreshing economic development on the world stage, because it is not healthy for one country to have a world monopoly,” Faiman said. “True competition may have the effect of reducing prices sufficiently to enable PV to compete with the more polluting ways of generating electric power.”

Still, Koornstra acknowledged some disadvantages to Turkish produced panels. “The bigger problem that Turkey has is that there are virtually no technical products that say ‘Made in Turkey.’ A solar panel that says ‘Made in Turkey’ will have a hard time getting a foothold in Europe,” he added.

Kirshenboim disagreed with producing panels in Turkey, explaining that such a factory can only work there if the government gave special incentives for the local manufacturers – and would stand very little chance of survival in the European market.

“In a country without many photovoltaic installations, without local raw materials industry and resources – I find it hard to believe that a local manufacturer that works alone will be able to be successful,” Kirshenboim said, citing cost and investment risk as deterrents.

While Koornstra could not predict the exact cost of the total 100-megawatt project, he said that a 3-megawatt project currently costs about 250 million euros. One megawatt alone can provide enough energy to power about 300 households, he said, and Faiman agreed with this estimate.

GiraSolar is in negotiations with two different Turkish parties already heavily involved in the country’s energy sector, and is in the process of developing a financing plan, according to Koornstra – who predicts that the first spade will hit the ground in about two years. From there, each of the small “sub-plants” within the larger block will go up consecutively, so that the plant as a whole can produce more and more energy gradually.

“We are talking with partners that want to realize this, that are well-equipped to get the licenses done. The land is available, the technology is available, the financial negotiations are ongoing,” Koornstra said. “We are at full speed to realize this, and if there are no negative changes taking place in the Turkish renewable energy program, then it’s a go.”

Despite Faiman’s enthusiasm over the potential plant in Turkey, he did not advocate a similar project in Israel – particularly with respect to internally produced solar panels. Instead, Faiman said he supports Concentrator Photovoltaics – a method used by his company ZenithSolar – as a more efficient, and potentially exportable system, than regular photovoltaic panels.

“Today it is purely a question of the availability of cheap labor,” he said of the panels, stressing that neither the US or Israel could succeed in this arena – but perhaps India could stand a chance. “We certainly could not compete with Chinese prices by manufacturing photovoltaic panels at home.”

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