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

Italian energy company Enel announced in April last year that, with grants from the EU and Italian government, it will invest €600m to expand its existing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels production facility in Catania, increasing capacity 15-fold from 200 megawatts (MW) to three gigawatts (GW) by 2024. It 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. 


Sicilian scale-up 

Eliano Russo, head of Enel Green Power’s 3Sun facility in Catania, tells fDi “Sicily is not the first location you would think of for a project like this, in terms of infrastructure and logistics”.

But, he explains, the company now has an established presence on the island 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.”

Established on the island in 2010, the company’s facility has been producing modules since 2018. There are also plans underway to invest in a similar facility in the US, but Mr Russo could not confirm where exactly. 

The decision to expand the plant 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 weaning the bloc of Russian fossil fuels.

The expansion has received funding from both the EU and Italian government, amounting to a combined sum of €188m, or a little under a third of the total investment. The project is slated to add some 1900 direct and indirect jobs to the local economy. Enel hired 50 people over the course of the past year and expects to hire 700 more at 3Sun in 2023, according to Mr Russo.


Model to follow

Slated to be the biggest solar module plant in Europe, 3Sun is positioning itself as a model to follow for Europe, even in these early days. But with more than 80% of solar PV panel manufacturing currently taking place in China, are these 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.” he says.

“This is a marathon we have to run together,” Mr Russo 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.” 

Before getting carried away with the broader significance of such a project and its hypothetical impact, there are practical considerations that anchor 3Sun into the Sicilian ground: its focus remains its bottom line and energy needs.

Although at least 40% of the panels are to be produced and sold in Europe, as per the EU funding requirements, Enel’s facility is still a profit-seeking enterprise.

“The mission of the factory is to produce panels ... in a profitable way. So, of course, our mission will be to extract the maximum value out of this production.”

There are also not enough renewable energy developers locally to meet all the plant’s energy requirements through green means, Mr Russo adds. 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,” he says. “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, this will likely remain the case.”