Czech regulator to buy U.S. satellite images for solar probe
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech energy regulator is buying satellite images from the U.S. army to help crack down on fraud in the solar industry that could have generated up to 7 billion Czech crowns ($376 million) a year in illicit gains, a regulator spokesman said on Friday.
The Energy Regulatory Authority wants the images to help determine whether some generators falsely claimed to have connected their solar plants to the grids before certain deadlines to qualify for higher subsidies.
The probe centers mainly around the end of 2010 when solar farm operators were rushing to finish building plants to qualify for generous government subsidies before the system was changed at the start of 2011.
Spokesman Jiri Chvojka said the regulator was looking to examine around 220 solar plants using the satellite images to see whether the facilities were actually completed and connected to the grid by the time they started drawing support.
"It is clear and uncompromising evidence," Chvojka said.
"Out of the 220 installations we have been auditing, which amounts to roughly 7 billion crowns a year in state support, we have found shortcomings among 85 percent of them. So far, we think we will want to see around 60 to 70 percent of them on the satellite images."
Generous subsidies have helped the Czech Republic become one of Europe's biggest solar nations but they have also ratcheted up electricity prices for consumers and businesses and put pressure on lawmakers to reform the system.
Czech lawmakers have imposed a 26 percent tax on solar plants that had started operation in 2009 and 2010 under the higher subsidies to reduce the drain on government revenue.
The measure was set to expire at the end of 2013, but under the new law the tax will continue at a lower rate of 10 percent on solar power plants that started in 2010.
The government has approved state support to cover so-called feed in tariffs for the solar sector to rise by 4 billion crowns from 11.7 billion crowns in 2013.
(Reporting by Michael Kahn and Jan Korselt; Editing by Mark Potter)
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