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When one thinks of solar power in Turkey, the ubiquitous solar water heaters perched on top of most houses immediately spring to mind. However, in recent years, Ankara has embarked on an ambitious campaign to boost Turkey’s expertise in, and share of, solar-generated electricity.
And the potential is considerable. Sitting astride the ‘Mediterranean sun belt’, only Turkey’s northern coastal area receives annual irradiation levels below 1400 kWh/m2 (between 2004-2010). However, with little experience of applying renewable energy solutions to the energy grid, Turkey seems an unlikely hub for green energy.
Nevertheless, keen to capitalize on its renewable energy potential, in 2014, the Turkish government announced as part of its ‘2023 Vision’ – the year coinciding with the Turkish Republic’s centenary – plans to boost the country’s alternative energy sources significantly. Initially, Turkey aimed to install 34 gigawatts (GW) hydroelectricity capacity, 20GW in wind energy, 5GW from solar energy and 1GW each from geothermal and biomass. The success of the initiative has exceeded initial expectations. By 2016, senior figures in Turkey’s solar industry were already predicting that the country would exceed its planned solar energy target. This plan will see renewable energy sources make up for some 30 per cent of Turkey’s energy needs in 2023.
Turkey still imports 55 per cent of its natural gas from Russia, and the vulnerability of its energy supply was laid bare in recent years when ties with Moscow were strained repeatedly over the war in Syria, most notably when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. In 2017, Turkey’s Energy Ministry expressed hopes to meet two thirds of Turkey’s electricity needs from domestic sources. As the renewable energy sector gathers momentum, green energy could be a reliable substitute for more risky imports. And as Ankara pursues a geopolitical stance increasingly independent of old allies or other global powers like Russia, energy security will be a key political consideration.
Steering Solar Energy in the Right Direction
The Turkish government has taken a proactive stance in ensuring its vision of Turkish energy is furthered through solar energy tenders. Legislation covering the tenders includes a clause obligating the tender-holders to use Turkish-produced equipment or manufacture their own equipment in Turkey. Moreover, it also stipulates that four out of every five engineers employed by the tender-holder must be Turkish. This aims to ensure the sustainability of the country’s renewable energy sector beyond these initial investments.
Turkey’s first integrated solar cell and panel production facility opened outside Ankara late last year. A prime example of the government’s renewable energy legislation in action, the plant will provide solar energy equipment for the Karapinar site, Turkey’s largest solar facility. With the capacity to produce 1,000 megawatts (MW) in green energy – enough to power some 600,000 households – Karapinar will be one of the world’s largest solar power plants. The Turkish-Korean consortium behind the project, the Kalyon-Hanwah group, is exactly the kind of international cooperation and knowledge-sharing that the ruling AKP hoped to engineer in the renewable energy sector.
The second such scheme is slated to be announced in mid-2018, with two more Anatolian cities reported to be the main contenders to host it. At 600MW, the plant will be smaller than Karapinar but will likely bring politically expedient capital to areas of the country that have not benefitted from the same rocketing growth as industrial and business centres like Istanbul. The geographical requirements of solar energy plants, large tracts of flat land and high irradiation levels, make the technology ideal for encouraging economic growth in the Anatolian heartlands, long key drivers of AKP dominance at the ballot boxes. With key elections coming up in 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government will surely be looking to exploit these projects for political gain.
Authorities further down the political hierarchy are also getting in on the act. In mid-February, a new solar power plant founded by the local council was opened in Bolu province. The facility, whose output is expected to be the equivalent of the energy needed to power 10,000 homes, will provide electricity to an adjacent water-refining plant. With piped potable water still a luxury across most of Turkey, such schemes hold powerful political potential.
Solar Engine for Growth
It is important to remember that the AKP’s 2023 Vision was first and foremost a programme of economic growth. Turkey will not be the first country to pin hopes of future economic prosperity to the totem pole of renewable energy; Germany and China have both championed the industry. Central to both nations’ renewable strategy has been the development of domestic manufacturing of solar panels or components. This stipulation follows a common trend in Turkish state-backed business. In the Turkish arms industry, foreign deals are often negotiated to include the transfer of know-how and technology to the country’s domestic industry. That said, Germany has struggled in recent years to compete with Chinese prices for solar panels, a challenge that Turkish production will have to face too.
The Karapinar facility is also being touted as the massive infrastructure that Erdogan has made his legacy, including Istanbul’s third bridge over the Bosporus (the world’s widest suspension bridge), Istanbul’s new airport and the planned Istanbul canal. Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and Turkey’s energy minister, referred to Karapinar as the energy world’s “crazy project”, the same nickname given to Erdogan’s infrastructure monster schemes that have come to symbolize his economic ambitions over the past 15 years.
But the turn towards green energy in Turkey does not only hold domestic potential. Ankara has been building ties across Africa for years. As one of the world’s fastest growing markets for electricity demand, Africa is already being touted as an important and profitable market for the export of Turkish solar equipment in the future.
Solar power looks set to be a key pillar of Turkish energy supply for the foreseeable future. If Ankara’s hopes come to fruition, the solar energy sector and its support industries will cement continued Turkish economic growth for years to come.