Ukraine is considering a daring new plan to transition to solar power. Thirty years after the worst nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl still strikes fear into the hearts of many. Today, the land around the crippled nuclear power plant — which will remain dangerously radioactive for centuries — is a wasteland unsuitable for human habitation or agriculture.
But the government of Ukraine has an idea that could make that land useful again while it waits for the radioactivity to diminish. What it proposes is installing a vast solar power facility on the broken land. Its reasons are both practical and political.
“The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy,” Ukraine’s environment minister Ostap Semerak, 44, said at an interview in London. “We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap and we have many people trained to work at power plants.”
Ukraine for decades has been dependent on Russia for the natural gas it needs to heat its homes and generate its electricity. Relations with Russia have been less than cordial, however, ever since its powerful neighbor to the east invaded the Crimea section of Ukraine and claimed it for its own.
Last year Ukraine cut its natural gas consumption from Russia by more than half. from its eastern neighbour, according to Ukrtransgaz PJSC. By developing solar power around Chernobyl, it could nearly eliminate its need for Russian natural gas.
The move to solar at Chernobyl may also help Ukraine move closer toward the European Union and influence public opinion in conflict zones along the Russian border. “We have normal European priorities, which means having the best standards with the environment and clean energy ambitions,” said Semerak. “We want to be a successful Ukraine, to show people in the conflict zone that life is better and more comfortable with us.”
Ultimately, Ukraine thinks it could get more power from the sun than Germany does. It’s northern neighbor has more than 39 gigawatts of installed solar at the moment. The environmental ministry has received expressions of interest for its Chernobyl solar complex from two US investment firms and four Canadian energy companies, Semerak said. Ukrainian developers plan to install 4 megawatts of panels on the site by year-end.
The European Bank for Reconstruction & Development is also considering financing, though the talks are at early stages. “We can consider such projects like all other renewable projects subject to there being credible and viable investment proposals and all other environmental issues and risks can be addressed to our satisfaction,” said Sevki Acuner, the bank’s director for Ukraine.