Project Helios: Revitalizing the Greek Economy with Solar Power

In Greek mythology, Helios was the embodiment of the sun. Today, Project Helios, a plan to construct 2.2 (gigawatts) GW of PV systems in Greece by 2020 and 10 GW by 2050, embodies hopes for a win-win solution to Greece’s financial crisis and Germany’s goals for solar expansion. The electricity generated by Helios installations will be transmitted to Greece’s northern creditors – mainly Germany – as payment towards the country’s debts.

According to an October 2011 statement by the Council of Europe, Greece has committed future cash flows from Project Helios to reduce its debt by up to €15 billion and improve the lending capacity of the European Financial Stability Facility.

Greece is preparing a securitization plan where power purchase agreements for the output from the Greek PV would be backed by the guarantee of the German state. The revenues from the project have been estimated at €80–100 billion over a 25-year basis, according to the website capital.gr. Funds raised through the securitization would enable Greece to have a 50% participation in the project as well as pay off debt.

An Enormous Development Plan

This is an enormous project for a country of Greece’s size. Total installed electricity generation capacity at the end of 2010 was only 15.6 GW (more than 70% of it thermal generation). Around 15,000 hectares of military lands, farmland and former mining areas have been evaluated for project use.

The plan aligns with the direction of the German PV industry. The German government does not want to continue to subsidize ground-based PV installations in its own country. Instead, it would rather see developments in sunnier climates. Greece enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year, and PV in Greece will generate around twice the electricity of the same module located in Germany.

Greece’s homegrown PV industry is small. There were just over 200MW of PV capacity installed in Greece at the end of 2010. There are only five small companies producing PV modules in Greece, according to Eftichios Sartzetakis, an environmental economist at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki.

Exporting electricity from Project Helios will be a challenge. The transmission infrastructure through the Balkans to Northern Europe is insufficient to carry the planned load.

By some estimates, Project Helios has the potential to create 60,000 jobs, but it is not clear where those jobs will be, particularly if the majority of the PV systems are manufactured in Germany. One senior player in the German PV industry was reported as saying that he thought jobs in Greece would be limited to site preparation, construction and maintenance.

Many details of the plan have yet to be addressed in both the Greek and European Parliaments, but supporters agree that this is a truly innovative approach to a difficult situation.

“At the moment, we don’t have answers, only questions,” says Sartzetakis.