On Nov. 14, after working for ten days to convert their mosque to run on solar power, residents of a village in the Turkish district of Akkuyu assembled outside the building and unfurled a banner that read, “The sun is rising on Akkuyu.”
It was a bright moment in what has been an otherwise discouraging year for Büyükeceli, a picturesque Mediterranean village in Akkuyu. In July, the Turkish government authorized Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Büyükeceli. Averse to the risks posed by the plant, Büyükeceli locals asked the government to let them build a photovoltaic panel array instead.
When the government rejected that proposal, the people took matters into their own hands and installed a 2.25 kilowatt-capacity system on their mosque — enough to meet all of its energy needs, and then some.
But their triumph is dimmed by the fact that, although the excess power produced by the mosque can be channeled back into the grid, the villagers won’t get a cent for it; the country’s energy authority doesn’t offer any incentives to solar power producers. Furthermore, the nuclear plant plans seem to be progressing as usual.
The Büyükeceli villagers’ effort to go solar illustrates the general plight of solar power producers in Turkey: the regulatory vacuum in which they operate, and the institutional bias toward conventional energy manufacturers. But equally striking is their determination, despite these obstacles, to harness their country’s solar resources.
Solar Power in Turkey: The Big Picture
Over the past few decades, without any government support, small, semi-unofficial industries have arisen around solar thermal power and photovoltaics in Turkey. The photovoltaics industry comprises about fifty installation companies, and the solar thermal industry several hundred.
“Turkish people really like the idea of producing their own electricity,” says Korol Diker, a climate and energy campaigner for the Mediterranean branch of Greenpeace, which helped the Büyükeceli villagers install their solar panels.
“We mostly use solar to heat water, but to use it widely for electricity, people need to have more incentives, and need to be able to sell it to the state. Turkey has never invested in this field, and solar has to fight the big players like coal and gas, so the government must open a space for it.” Instead, according to Diker, the government has a history of subsidizing nuclear, coal, oil and natural gas projects.
According to many environmentalists, market analysts and solar developers, the solar industry in Turkey could become one of the biggest in the world if its government offered solar producers as much regulatory and financial support as the governments of Germany and Spain, which offer solar producers generous feed-in tariffs.
“When it does take off in Turkey, it will take off really quickly, because everyone’s waiting for them,” says Louis Hennequin, a project developer from the U.S. solar and wind project development firm Lincoln Renewable Energy, who attended a renewable energy congress in Istanbul this fall to scout out promising solar projects in Turkey.
“Given the potential in Turkey, of course, companies would rather step in today. But in five years, if other markets slow down, other incentives go away, and Turkey’s market grows, it’s still going to be interesting,” according to Hennequin.
Sofian Irsheid, who attended the same conference on behalf of the German development firm Donauer Solar Systems, is more discouraged by the situation: “There’s a bottleneck. There is lots of knowledge, lots of willingness, and there are many companies doing groundwork. But it’s very clear they need a feed-in tariff to make this attractive in Turkey.”
Clean Energy Law Stalled, and Weak
Indeed, for the past two years, a law that would give financial incentives to clean energy producers has been sitting before Turkish parliament, waiting for the assembly to vote on it. The parliament seems unlikely to pass the amendment any time soon, however. And even if it does pass, it will only offer solar energy producers a maximum feed-in tariff of 10 euro cents per kwH: far less than a 24 euro cent feed-in tariff, which, according to Diker, is necessary to launch a strong solar market in Turkey.
“My best guess is that nothing satisfactory will pass,” says Osman Coskunoğlu, a member of the Turkish parliament for the Republican People’s Party, the current opposition party. “Ostensibly, they don’t want to take on the economic burden of higher and better incentives. However, my best guess is that it’s because of the natural gas and oil lobbies.”
As Coskunoğlu points out, several prominent figures in Turkish government have vested interests in the oil and gas industries. The most striking example is the Turkish prime minister himself, whose son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, is CEO of the company building a petroleum pipeline from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
More Sun than Spain or California
There is no single reliable measure of Turkey’s solar potential. The government’s general directorate of electrical power resources estimates that Turkey receives, on average, 1.02 million terawatt-hours of solar radiation each year. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre gives a slightly higher figure, 1.21 million twH. For comparison, Spain and California each receive about 800,000 twH per year.
At that rate, photovoltaic cells with a standard energy conversion efficiency rate of fifteen percent would have to cover just 2,000 square kilometers — one-half of one percent of Turkey’s landmass — to yield a theoretical installed capacity of 40,000 MW, Turkey’s currently installed electrical capacity. (Because of energy storage and transportation limitations, this is only an ideal figure for now.)