YEGHEGNADZOR—Construction has begun on the first micro solar farm in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor province. Perched atop a hill overlooking the village of Gladzor, the projected solar power plant occupies the spot of an abandoned Soviet-era meteorological monitoring facility.
Visiting dignitaries and construction workers clad in safety gear braved the hot Armenian sun to attend the plant’s groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday. Following opening remarks and keynote speeches by high-ranking Armenian officials and foreign diplomats, guests symbolically shoveled dirt into the foundations of the solar panel stands.
Andrea Baggioli, the European Union (EU) delegation’s Cooperation Officer for connectivity, agriculture, environment and climate action, told the Armenian Weekly that the new plant would create seven permanent high-skilled positions. The broader initiative is also expected to generate employment for an additional 25 locals. According to the chief engineer, the Lithuanian-manufactured solar panels will generate one megawatt (MW) of power. The site has the capacity be expanded to produce an additional 0.5MW.
The EU is the project’s primary backer. Brussels has poured 1.5 million euros into the construction of the solar farm as a crucial component of an ambitious regional development initiative. This experimental concept, currently being piloted in the Vayots Dzor province, serves the dual purpose of supporting renewable energy production and sustainable local tourism-related business in the region.
Taking advantage of subsidies allocated to renewable energy producers, the solar plant will sell energy into Armenia’s electrical grid. All profits generated by the plant will be reinvested into a special fund intended to finance sustainable local business initiatives. Within the framework of the same project, the EU has also been providing assistance to foster a local eco-tourism infrastructure. Among those attending the ceremony was a group of prospective bed and breakfast operators undergoing an EU-funded training program.
“We used to call these ‘pilot projects,’” said EU Ambassador Piotr Antoni Switalski, “but they are already proven examples of successful regional development to build on.”
Italian non-profit conglomerate PIN will manage the plant as part of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) which also includes the surrounding municipal governments and an association representing local small businesses. Enrico Banchelli, Project Manager for PIN in charge of implementing the concept, tells the Armenian Weekly, “This partnership will serve as a model for future community development across the country.”
Deputy Minister of Territorial Administration Vache Terteryan agrees. During the ceremony, he announced that seven more consolidated enlarged communities have already begun talks with international aid agencies to construct similar solar power plants. (These communities consist of groups of villages which have merged their municipal government structures to manage resources better.) The Deputy Minister added that “More than just bringing new technology, this concept imports a new culture of regional economic development.”
Ambassador Switalski hopes to replicate this model throughout the country. Following Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s visit to Brussels in March, the EU pledged to support Armenia’s new focus on sustainable energy production. The EU has already earmarked 65 million euro in budgetary assistance to construct new solar, hydro or wind plans in the coming years.
The EU has been supporting Armenia’s sustainable energy ambitions with technical and financial assistance since the mid-1990s. However, Yerevan’s reluctance to deactivate the aging Medzamor nuclear power plant, which provides 40 percent of the country’s electricity, has frustrated further cooperation in the energy field until very recently. Armenia’s energy market has been left open to other major players.
A series of controversial assets-for-debt relief deals under the administration of President Robert Kocharyan left much of the country’s gas and electricity infrastructure in the hands of Russian state-owned corporations. Though some of these assets have since been sold off or privatized. Regardless, Armenia is actively looking to diversify its list of energy partners.
Several partnerships in sustainable energy have met success. The country opened its first wind farm in 2005 with financial assistance from Iran. This trend has continued with the acquisition of the massive Vorotan hydro-electric cascade by American multinational ContourGlobal in 2015. The $180 million deal came with a promise to invest an additional $70 million in refurbishments.
In recent years, the EU has reasserted its commitment to supporting Armenia’s energy security. Brussels has agreed to help Yerevan replace the Medzamor station as a condition for signing the CEPA agreement. Annual events marking “Sustainable Energy Week” have been held across the country every June. In 2018, Brussels allocated €15 million toward the implementation of energy efficiency improvements in combination with renewable energy technologies, enhanced seismic resilience and accessibility of kindergartens.
“Armenia can count on us when it comes to developing efficient renewable energy resources,” insisted Ambassador Switalski.
The Gladzor Solar Power Plant is scheduled to be fully operational by mid-September. Vayots Dzor Marzbed (Governor) Trdad Sargsyan expressed to the Armenian Weekly, “I would not be exaggerating if I said this is a very important day for our region.”