‘Grid upgrades crucial to integrating solar’: Global Capital Finance on the challenges of building PV systems in Southern Europe

Pérez-Plá says that agriPV offers strategic advantages regarding land acquisition in Southern Europe. Image: Enel Green Power.

Southern Europe boasts the highest irradiation levels in the continent, and interest in solar PV in the region continues to rise. Last year, Italy achieved its best year in the last decade, with more than 5GW of solar PV capacity added in 2023.

As more countries in the region continue to accelerate the pace of adding solar PV in Europe, securing land and grid modernisation have become two important issues for Southern Europe that need to be addressed.

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Ahead of Large Scale Solar Southern Europe, held in Athens, Greece, on 2-3 July, PV Tech spoke with Alejandra Pérez-Plá, regional manager – Mediterranean at financial advisory firm Global Capital Finance about the challenges related to land acquisition for utility-scale solar PV projects in Southern Europe, how to manage these issues and grid modernisation.

Pérez-Pla will moderate a panel on financing large-scale solar PV projects in Southern Europe on the second day of the event.

PV Tech: What are the challenges related to land acquisition for large-scale solar PV projects?

Alejandra Pérez-Plá: In Southern Europe, land acquisition for large-scale solar projects faces several challenges. First, except for Spain, suitable land is often scarce due to the region’s varied topography, which includes mountainous areas and densely populated regions. The land must be relatively flat, free from heavy vegetation, not prone to flooding and without archaeological artefacts, which limits available sites.

Environmental impact is another significant concern as Southern Europe is home to rich biodiversity and protected natural areas, requiring detailed environmental assessments and impact studies. Regulatory hurdles can be particularly complex due to diverse and stringent land use regulations and zoning laws across different countries and regions.

Community opposition can also be strong, driven by concerns about visual impacts, potential decreases in property values, and the desire to preserve agricultural land and landscapes. Additionally, competition for land use, especially with agriculture and tourism, is a notable challenge in this region.

The best sites are often prime agricultural land, and there is growing resistance to replacing such with utility-scale solar PV. Managing these challenges in Southern Europe requires a comprehensive and country-specific approach.

What can be done to secure the optimal land and reduce any environmental and community impact?

Conducting thorough site assessments is essential to identify locations with minimal environmental and community impact. Early and proactive engagement with local communities helps address concerns and build support for the projects. This includes transparent communication about the economic and environmental benefits of solar energy and measures taken to mitigate any negative impacts. Regulatory experts familiar with local laws and regulations are crucial for navigating the complex permitting processes efficiently.

Offering attractive land lease agreements to landowners can incentivise participation and support. Agrivoltaics (agriPV) becomes a major strategic advantage. Implementing environmental mitigation measures, such as using degraded land or creating wildlife corridors, helps minimise the ecological footprint of solar projects.

How is grid modernisation being addressed to support the integration of more solar energy?

Grid upgrades in Southern Europe are crucial for supporting the growing integration of solar energy. Key initiatives to limit grid upgrades include the implementation of smart grid technologies, which involve advanced metering infrastructure, real-time monitoring and automated control systems to better manage distributed energy resources.

Energy storage systems, such as batteries, are being deployed to handle the variability of solar generation and provide grid stability through load shifting. Enhancing grid flexibility through demand response programmes, distributed generation and microgrids is also a priority.

Significant investments are being made in upgrading transmission infrastructure to accommodate increased renewable energy capacity and facilitate electricity transport from solar-rich regions to demand centres.

Additionally, advanced inverters are being utilised to provide grid support functions like voltage regulation and frequency response. The European Union’s funding programmes, such as the Connecting Europe Facility and Horizon Europe, play a pivotal role in financing grid modernisation projects. A critical aspect to a timely build out of renewable energy to achieve the political goals is the acceleration of grid improvement measures.

How do you see growth in advanced technologies like agriPV, green hydrogen or floating solar?

Technologies such as agriPV, green hydrogen and floating solar have significant growth potential in Southern Europe. AgriPV, which combines solar power with agriculture, allows for dual land use and provides additional revenue streams for farmers. This is particularly appealing in regions where agriculture is a dominant land use.

Green hydrogen, produced using solar energy through electrolysis, is emerging as a key technology for decarbonising heavy industry and transportation sectors. Southern Europe’s abundant solar resources make it an ideal region for green hydrogen production, and through blending with natural gas in existing pipelines, grid upgrades are less critical.

Floating solar, where panels are installed on water bodies, reduces land use conflicts and can improve efficiency due to the cooling effects of the water. Given Southern Europe’s numerous reservoirs and water bodies, this technology offers considerable potential for expansion.

PV Tech publisher Solar Media will be organising the second edition of Large Scale Solar Southern Europe in Athens, Greece, from 2-3 July 2024. The event will focus on an ever-growing market such as Southern Europe with a packed programme of panels, presentations and fireside chats from industry leaders responsible for the build-out of solar PV projects in Greece, Turkey and Croatia. For more information, including how to attend, please go to the official website.

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