Thirty years after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant spewed radioactive fallout over the surrounding area, it still isn't a safe place to live, or grow food, or even log trees. And it won't be any time soon, because some isotopes of plutonium last for more than 24,000 years. But the Ukrainian government hopes to put the massive area known as the exclusion zone, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island, to another use: a new solar farm.
The exclusion zone has a few advantages for solar energy. First, because the land can't be used for anything else, it's cheap. The electrical transmission equipment—normally expensive to install—is still in place from the former nuclear plant. Chernobyl is also near Kiev, a city with nearly 3 million people and the largest power demand in the Ukraine.
If it's fully developed, the area could generate more than 1,000 megawatts of solar power, a quarter of the installed capacity at the nuclear plant. If it's completed soon, it will also be the world's largest solar farm.
The government is currently talking to investors to try to raise the $1.1 billion needed for the installation. A new law, which would allow new activity in the exclusion zone, passed its first reading in Parliament in June.
Some in the industry are skeptical of the plan; investors will need to be willing to risk sending construction workers to the site, and comfortable with the ongoing threats from Russia. Even more important: The site isn't the sunniest in the country.
"Chernobyl is not the best place to build big solar farms, because it's in the north of the country," says Dmytro Lukomsky, chief operating officer of Rentechno, a solar installation company in the Ukraine. "There's a difference of maybe up to 10% more generation in the south of Ukraine . . . there are a lot more attractive places in the south."
Still, 20 miles north of Chernobyl, in Belarus, another solar plant—with 85,000 PV panels—is already under construction, and will be completed this summer. Velcom, a telecom company, invested more than $25 million in the project, and says it will cover about half of the company's energy needs, and pay for itself in four or five years.
Overall, the Ukraine gets more solar radiation than Germany, where almost 39 gigawatts of solar power (more than the entire United States) are now installed. So far, the Ukraine has just one gigawatt of installed solar, but it plans to build 34 new solar installations this year, or 120 megawatts of capacity. By 2020, the country—which still gets half of its power now from nuclear plants—plans to run on 11% renewable energy.
The country used to have a little more solar power—when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, the land it took included several large solar plants, which the Kremlin disconnected from Ukraine's grid. Building more solar is a way to help the Ukraine become energy independent.
"There's a small boom in solar here in the Ukraine," says Lukomsky. "Of course, it's not like Germany and other countries. But for our country, it's a good industry and a good prospect."
The government is currently talking with investors in the U.S., along with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, about the potential plant at Chernobyl. Developers plan to take the first steps—a small four megawatt installation—on the site by the end of 2016.
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