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January 31, 2023

Enel to build Europe’s biggest solar PV plant in Sicily

By Seth O'Farrell

Italian energy company is expanding to become Europe’s largest producer of solar panels.

On the island of Sicily, at one of Europe’s southernmost points, plans are under way to bring the solar supply chain to the continent’s shores.

Italian energy company Enel announced in April last year that it will invest €600mn to expand its existing solar photovoltaic panels production facility in Catania, increasing capacity 15-fold from 200 megawatts to 3 gigawatts by 2024. This will produce high-performance bifacial PV modules – panels that can capture sunlight on both sides – and is expected to achieve a capacity of 400MW by September this year. About a third of the company’s investment will be funded through grants from the EU and the Italian government.

Eliano Russo, head of Enel Green Power’s 3Sun facility in Catania, says Sicily is “not the first location you would think of for a project like this, in terms of infrastructure and logistics”. However, he explains the company now has an established presence there, and the intention was always to scale up operations once new technology was in place.

“The idea was that after we proved that our technology was competitive and had potential, we could start leveraging economies of scale,” he adds.

Established on the island in 2010, the facility has been producing modules since 2018 and Enel has plans to invest in a similar factory in the US (though Russo could not confirm exactly where). The decision to expand was taken in January last year, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which sent European gas prices soaring and gave the EU added incentive to accelerate the green transition by reducing its dependency on Russian fossil fuels.

The expansion has attracted funding from both the EU and the Italian government, amounting to a combined sum of €188mn. It should add around 1,900 direct and indirect jobs to the local economy – according to Russo, Enel hired 50 people in 2022 and expects to hire 700 more at 3Sun this year.

Model to follow

With its solar module plant slated to be the biggest in Europe, 3Sun is positioning itself as a model for Europe, even at this early stage. But with China currently manufacturing more than 80 per cent of solar PV panels, are European ambitions to reshore the supply chain too little, too late?

“If we want to avoid being completely dependent, we need to act now. Yes, we’re late, but the [green transition] is a marathon; it’s not something that we decide upon today and the problem will be solved within two years,” Russo says.

“This is a marathon we have to run together,” he adds. “3Sun alone is not able to change the manufacturing industry in Europe, but it can be an example to follow, and this is our ambition as we join forces with other partners.”

While the project may carry broader ambitions for Enel, there are practical considerations for the company to consider, and its focus remains its bottom line and energy needs.

In line with the EU funding requirements, there are constraints on the destination markets of the local production, with at least 40 per cent of the panels needing to be sold in Europe.

Russo also says that there are not enough renewable energy developers locally to meet all the plant’s energy requirements through green means. Of the plant’s current base load demand, roughly a third of its energy supply comes from gas.

“Unfortunately, the most efficient way to get the energy we need is by burning gas. We are studying greener options, such as green hydrogen, but in my view, on a 10-year horizon to preserve the competitiveness of the factory, [burning gas] will likely remain the case,” says Russo.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in fDi Intelligence.

Photo credit: Getty Images

A service from the Financial Times