Italy expands Europe’s first solar ‘gigafactory’
Italy’s energy utility Enel inaugurated its expanded 3Sun solar panel manufacturing facility in Sicily, making it the biggest factory in Europe, officials said.
Located in Catania, the 3Sun factory is already one of the largest solar panel production plants in Europe and the first of its kind in Europe to mass produce panels that capture the sun’s energy from both sides.
The solar panel factory, which currently has a production capacity of around 200 megawatts per year, plans to expand its production of photovoltaic panels to achieve 3 gigawatts by July 2024, Enel says.
“With 3Sun, we are practically demonstrating that in Italy, and therefore also in Europe, thanks to innovative technology, we can now produce state-of-the-art photovoltaic panels that are competitive in international markets,” said Enel CEO Francesco Starace.
“Initiatives like this are what the future of energy will be built upon,” he added, stressing that Europe needs to invest in its domestic supply chain to increase its energy security.
At the facility, Enel will produce double-sided photovoltaic modules allowing the panel to capture sunlight from both sides. The technology increases the efficiency of PV cells to 30% while current technology has an efficiency of around 20%, the company says.
The total investment for the facility’s upgrade amounts to around €600 million, including €188 million through grants received from the European Commission via the EU’s pandemic recovery fund and innovation fund.
Europe’s ambition is to decrease dependence on China, which dominates global PV production.
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The new gigafactory is part of Italy’s plan to “become the energy hub of Europe,” said Gilberto Pichetto Fratin, the Italian environment and energy minister who spoke at the plant’s inauguration on Monday (6 February).
According to Fratin, southern Italy is becoming central to Europe’s energy supply, both as a source of wind and solar power and as a gateway to receive gas supplies from the African continent.
The gigafactory is also expected to have a significant local impact, with the creation of around 1,000 jobs, and more indirect ones, according to Enel.
“The regional government has already defined a strategy that focuses on green energy sources and is working hard to accompany this transition,” explained Renato Schifani, President of the Sicily region.
Modules produced at the factory will be sold throughout Europe, but the goal is to increase also domestic renewable energy production and to use them in Sicily and in the rest of Italy, Schifani explained.
Italy currently relies on fossil fuels, mainly gas and oil, for about two-thirds of its energy mix, while renewables cover only one-third of the nation’s energy sources.
The government’s goal is to overturn this proportion, Fratin said, and to produce two-thirds of Italy’s energy from renewable sources in order to ensure greater energy security, with gas supplying the remainder.
The government envisages for instance major investments in the development of agrovoltaics, which uses agricultural land to place solar panels, with the aim of installing 1.04 GW of agrovoltaic plants.
EU renewables strategy
The European Commission was also represented at the factory’s inauguration event, with the participation of Ditte Juul Jørgensen, its director-general for energy.
Brussels gave a strong boost to renewables last year in the wake of Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine, Jørgensen said. This included a dedicated solar energy strategy aiming to double installed photovoltaic capacity by 2025, with a legal obligation to install solar panels on every new building.
This was followed by new fast-track permitting rules for renewables as well as a new solar industry alliance aiming “to create the right market conditions, so that our manufacturing sector remains competitive and brings jobs and growth to Europe,” she added.
Jørgensen also expressed concern about international competition, referring to the recent US Inflation Reduction Act. “Our response in Europe is our European Green Deal industrial plan, a plan to make Europe the home of pure tech and industrial innovation on the road to net zero,” she said.
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