Chernobyl embraces solar energy

The name Chernobyl conjures up images of one of the worst nuclear disasters. But if the Ukrainian government has anything to say about it, Chernobyl will soon be associated with solar energy. A Ukrainian-German group has already installed a small solar pilot project. Axel Eichholz reports from Moscow.

The site around the destroyed nuclear power plants in Chernobyl may soon be home to a thriving solar energy industry. (Image credit: zak zak via Flickr)

3,800 photovoltaic panels cover an area of 1.6 hectares. They were installed on top of a concrete base, as the subsoil still releases a great deal of radiation.

The solar panels transform sunlight directly into electricity, without first producing heat. It is not the cheapest design, but it is the least liable to break down and requires the least amount of maintenance.

The special thing about the solar panels is their location: the solar power plant is located in Chernobyl, only 100 metres from the fourth reactor that was badly damaged in 1986.

German-Ukrainian pilot project

It’s a small solar power plant with a capacity of 1 megawatt, comparable to a power plant that would supply electricity to a small town or a neighbourhood with 2,000 homes.

After the nuclear disaster in 1986, the untouched reactors produced electricity for their own use for years until the entire nuclear power plant was shut down.

Environmentally friendly solar panels – the complete opposite of the former nuclear power plant – will now supply the entire 30-kilometre exclusion zone around Chernobyl with electricity. Plans are even in place to export the electricity to other countries.

The pilot project was launched in 2016 by Solar Chernobyl, a joint venture between the Ukrainian company Rodina Energy Group and Enerparc AG in Hamburg, Germany.

According to AFP reports, Rodina Energy’s CEO Evgeny Variagin has now said that construction is completed, with a 1 million euro price tag. The project is expected to be profitable in seven years.

Turning Chernobyl back into an energy hub

But this is just the beginning. Solar Chernobyl hopes to build solar power plants throughout the exclusion zone with a potential total capacity of 4 GW. Ukraine enjoys more days of sunshine than Germany.

Even the Ukrainian government is behind the idea of transforming the site around the destroyed nuclear power plant back into an energy hub – this time with the help of environmentally friendly solar energy.

Around 1,100 hectares of land is being made available for this purpose, and it is already possible to apply for land parcels in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone from the government.

Plans are already underway to build standard power plants with 20 MW capacity, but interested parties from China are already planning to build a power plant with a capacity of 1 GW. French energy company Engie SA is already said to have applied to build its own solar power plant.

Rental prices for plots will be based on the location and the existing radioactive contamination.

Infrastructure still exists

According to unconfirmed reports, neighbouring Belarus has also built a solar power plant in its section of the radiation zone, with a capacity of between 18 and 23.5 MW.

Minsk has tried in the past to use the restricted zone for agriculture, but for the most part, these areas are only suitable for power generation.

Construction of the first Ukrainian solar power plant so close to the destroyed reactor is also intentional: after the nuclear power plant was shut down, extensive high-voltage cables and transformers were left behind – and they can be used to transmit solar power.

The construction of a new shell covering the damaged reactor gave new momentum to Chernobyl’s reconstruction plans, as it is designed to protect the site for at least 100 years from the radiation.

The exclusion zone lives on

People living in the exclusion zone have become accustomed to living with the radiation. Tourists fearlessly visit the region and bring home as a souvenir a bottle of the local spirits made from Chernobyl potatoes.

“Our schnapps is good against strontium,” say the predominantly older residents of the exclusion zone, who refused to leave their homes.

It’s also quite common now to hear from official sources that the radiation levels were initially overestimated, though this is not entirely accurate. The radioactivity is as dangerous today as it was in 1986, but authorities have come to the conclusion that the zone would be even more dangerous if it is not controlled – and this control would not be possible without electricity.

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