When we talk about new solar energy development it’s usually to praise the efforts of Germany, Italy, Spain or even Japan. Today, though, after crunching the numbers, a new leader has emerged, and it did so by posting solar gains that dwarfed even Germany in new solar power capacity as a function of gross domestic product. In other words, Bulgaria committed almost 4 times as much of its domestic product toward solar as its nearest competitor. That’s huge.
Bulgaria didn’t start developing solar assets until 2006, with their first solar electric power plant going live late in 2008. At the time the 1250 megawatt complex was the largest facility in all of Eastern Europe – so even though Bulgaria doesn’t get the press that other countries do, when they decided to go solar, they decided to go big.
The rapid growth of solar power in Bulgaria uncovered a major concern, though. The electrical infrastructure of the country was not ready to handle all of this newly generated power and has suffered severe overloads of its system. In an effort to stem the problem, legislators have suggested suspending as much as 40% of the solar power capacity until demand increases or a trade agreement can be made with neighboring Turkey.
This measure coincides with the new look government of Bulgaria. On Feb. 20th of this year the policies put in place by the old powers that be, led by then Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, were effectively erased due to his resignation. This was brought about by the public uprising over astronomical energy prices and overall economic disaster. Which begs the question – is Bulgaria really a solar leader or are the conditions in the country so bad that the numbers skew it that way?
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union. Over 20% of the population has left the country since the fall of communism in 1989. This mass exodus has fueled some very skewed numbers. The unemployment rate in Bulgaria is only 12%, but that’s because those that can’t find work are travelling to other European countries like Spain and Greece increasing their unemployment rates in the process. The Lev – the national unit of currency in Bulgaria – is the least valuable of any in Europe. Coupling the reduced population and relative low value of the country’s currency – solar capacity per capita and per GDP are artificially inflated.
Even if we agree that Bulgaria does win by the numbers, it doesn’t do much good for the population there. The industry is not creating enough jobs with high enough wages to support the electricity that is being produced. By overgrowing the system too quickly it became less profitable and resulted in an overabundance of a commodity that no one had use for.
It would seem that Germany is still the leader in responsible solar development, averaging over 3.5 megawatts of new solar generating capacity for every $1 billion of GDP. This rate is fully sustainable and is actually helping to boost the economy there – something that Bulgaria should have taken note of before pouring so much money into generation while neglecting their infrastructure. After all, what good does it do to have the ability to produce over 700 megawatts of power if your country only needs 450 at the most?
Full solar power generation stat can be found in the EPIA’s 2012 Photovoltaic Barometer report.
All GDP numbers taken from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).