Czech Republic : Speculators reach for the sun

There's money in them rays. Montage: Presseurop, Rob Atkins
There's money in them rays. Montage: Presseurop, Rob Atkins
Mladá Fronta DNES (Prague)

Buoyed by bountiful state subsidies, the Czech solar sector is booming. Investors the world over are rushing in to snatch up this manna, with little thought to the ecological aims, bemoans Mladá Fronta DNES.

A failsafe investment with an annual return of 15%. A pipedream? By no means! By proffering such irresistible terms, the Czech solar sector has drawn investors from the four corners of the earth. "Israel, Germany and the United States dominate the market,” says Jaromír Řehák, president of the Czech Photovoltaic Industry Association. But French investors, directly backed by their government, are also moving into the Czech market.

In the face of rampant financial speculation, the government has decided to lower the price at which utilities are required to buy electricity from individual and corporate clean power producers – which is currently twice the price at which consumers are billed. But with the rate-cutting amendment making slow progress towards passage, the Czech solar sector remains one of the most lucrative in Europe – even though Czech photovoltaic panels produce less power on average than those in sunnier climes like Spain and the south of France. And since France, Germany and Spain are also planning to slash the price at which utilities buy solar power, the Czech market should remain highly profitable.

We’re in it for the money

It is by and large Czech companies that are building the solar plants. The entrepreneurs are not environmentalists, however, but financiers: "I won’t pretend we’re guided by ecological interests. We are, first and foremost, investors, and we’re only in it for the money,” admits Ondřej Valníček of the Solar Global company. Be that as it may, the environmental sensibility of the governments involved is naturally vital to the business: it is a guarantee in and of itself, at least in the present-day world, that the states will continue to support renewable energy.

The photovoltaic business has also become a huge source of jobs in the Czech Republic, which is now one of the world’s leading suppliers of solar technology. Close to 2,000 people work at companies specialised in assembling photovoltaic panels. The research and development sector employs a hundred people, and wholesalers account for roughly another 400 jobs. It is estimated that, all told, the solar sector provides work for over 4,000 Czechs.

Martin Sommer is the head of Schott Solar, the leader in the Czech photovoltaic sector: "The Spanish market, the second-most important in Europe, has collapsed. The financial crisis is holding up investment in large-scale projects." Nonetheless, he is positive that the solar energy boom has only just begun: "All the European states have very ambitious targets in terms of increasing the share of renewable energy in the overall power package.”

Micro-municipalities become industrial estates

"The current photovoltaic energy trend is absurd,” admits Jiří Květoň, the president of the Czech Photovoltaic Energy Association. He is referring to the ginormous plants capable of yielding annual profits estimated at hundreds of millions of Czech crowns (partly stemming from public funds), which have absolutely nothing to do with the original aim of preserving the environment. Not to mention the fact that some of the plants are built on greenfield sites that small municipalities are scrambling to turn into “industrial estates”, which can then be sold to investors interested in putting solar panels there.

But speculators are not the only ones going solar: thieves have taken a shine to the panels, which they strip off the roofs of houses, sometimes even going as far as to plunder solar plants. "In the past we’d come across some pretty ridiculous situations,” recounts Zdeněk N., the head of a security firm that has recently gone into guarding photovoltaic plants: "The thief would break into a plant, steal the aluminium frames for the solar panels, which he’d dismantle, then split, leaving the panels behind, not knowing that they might be valuable. It’s only since early last year that we’ve been seeing thefts of solar panels.”

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