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Turkey plans to expand renewable energy but sticks to coal, nuclear

Clean energy advocates say Turkey should speed up its shift to renewable sources not only out of environmental concerns, but also to reduce its costly reliance on imported energy.
Coal miners move a wagon of coal at a small coal mine on Dec. 9, 2021, in Zonguldak, Turkey.

Turkey has announced plans to increase renewable energy use by 2035, but other aspects of its energy strategy remain under criticism, including continued investment in coal-fueled and nuclear power plants.

A National Energy Plan released last month outlines targets in the energy sector by 2035, which, according to the Energy Ministry, are in line with Turkey’s goal to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2053. According to the plan, electrical energy would account for 25% of Turkey’s energy consumption by 2035, up from 21.8% in 2020, while the share of renewable sources in the installed power capacity would increase to nearly 65% from 52% in 2020.

Turkey’s installed power capacity, which stood at 95.9 gigawatts (GW) at the end of 2020, would reach nearly 190 GW by 2035, and three-fourths of the new power capacity would be derived from renewable energy sources — a target welcomed by advocates of clean energy. Under the plan, coal- and gas-fired thermal plans would account for 34.2% of electricity generation by 2035, down from 57.6% in 2020. Critics, however, see the decrease as insufficient, with plans for a second nuclear power plant adding to their concerns. The share of renewable energy sources, they believe, could be increased further and in a shorter time.

How Turkey meets its energy needs is crucial for its economy, which is heavily reliant on imported oil and gas and is thus highly vulnerable to global price volatilities. The spike in oil and gas prices amid the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing supply problems after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have come as stern reminders that the country should minimize its dependency on imported energy and speed up its “green transition” by expanding investment in renewable sources. 

Turkey’s appetite for economic growth has meant an increased energy demand. From 2020 to 2021, its electricity demand rose by about 4.6%, while the average global increase was 3%, according to official figures. In 2020, imports accounted for 70% of Turkey’s primary energy sources, while the share of renewable sources stood at only 16.7%. 

Under the plan, Turkey aims to increase the use of renewable sources both in its overall energy consumption and power generation. In terms of overall energy consumption, renewable sources would account for 18.4% in 2025 and 23.7% in 2035. Electrical energy, meanwhile, would represent nearly 25% of the ultimate energy consumption, with the installed power capacity rising to nearly 190 GW. As part of that target, the shares of solar and wind sources would reach 28% and 16%, respectively. As for other renewable sources, the installed capacity would reach 35.1 GW in terms of hydroelectric power plants and 5.1 GW in terms of geothermal and biomass plants. Thus, renewable sources would account for nearly 65% of the country’s installed power capacity by 2035. 

Expanding solar energy use stands out as the most ambitious target for renewables. The plan envisages that the solar energy installed capacity would reach 53 GW by 2035, a 470% increase from 9.3 GW in 2022. 

Commenting on the plan, Bengisu Ozenc, director of the Sustainable Economy and Finance Studies Association, argued that the use of fossil fuels could be reduced faster with a higher renewable energy capacity. 

Expanding the use of renewable energy is crucial for Turkey, Ozenc told Al-Monitor, underscoring the far-reaching ramifications of dependency on imported energy. “Renewable energy investments are important to avoid the cost of imported fuel and improve the current account balance,” she said. “But there is another increasingly important impact, which is on inflation. At a time when high inflation is a global problem, we see that renewable energy investments are brought to the fore in fighting inflation.”

Ozenc noted that the new targets for increased solar and wind capacities outstripped the targets outlined in an earlier plan five years ago. “This reflects the fast development of renewable energy technologies. According to information we have from representatives of the sector, much larger increases can be achieved in terms of wind capacity in particular,” she said.

Oguz Turkyilmaz, head of the energy group at the Mechanical Engineers Chamber, slammed the plan for envisaging continued investments in power plants that would use imported coal and gas. “This will increase [Turkey’s] dependency on foreign suppliers,” he told Al-Monitor. 

According to Turkyilmaz, the public sector should take the lead in power generation and prioritize the development of renewable sources. 

The plan says Turkey will have a nuclear energy installed capacity of 7.2 GW by 2035. A Russian company is currently building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, on the country’s southern Mediterranean coast. Its first unit is expected to begin producing electricity later this year. Plans are underway for a second nuclear power plant in Sinop, on the country’s northern Black Sea coast. 

Mehmet Ozdag, executive board member at the Electrical Engineers Chamber, denounced nuclear energy altogether and argued that Turkey’s Akkuyu deal with Russia was not economically viable either. “When you look at this business around the world, the cost is normally 5-6 cents per kWh. In our deal [with Russia], it is 13-14 cents,” he told Al-Monitor. 

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