SOFIA (Reuters) – Italy’s multiutility Enel and US energy company Entergy launched a 600-million-euro project yesterday to modernize a Bulgarian power plant, the country’s Energy Ministry said. The three-year project, the biggest foreign investment in the Balkan state’s energy sector so far, aims to raise electricity production and strengthen Bulgaria’s role as a leading power exporter in the region. It will raise the capacity of the coal-fired plant Maritsa East Three to 900 megawatts (MW) from 850 MW now and extend its operational life by 15 years, the ministry said in a statement. In return for the investment, Enel has acquired 44 percent in a joint venture that controls Maritsa East Three, and Entergy holds 29 percent. The remainder is owned by Bulgaria’s power export monopoly NETC. The plant is located at the Maritsa East lignite coal-mining complex in southern Bulgaria that generates 30 percent of the country’s power. Last week Bulgaria signed a 226-million-euro project with Japan’s Mitsui Corporation to modernize the 1,450 MW Maritsa East Two power plant. In 2001, NETC signed the Maritsa East Three project with Entergy and set up a joint venture in which NETC owned 49 percent and the US company held the remaining 51 percent. Later Entergy raised its stake to 73 percent and last month sold 44 percent to Enel. The Italian company had said it had an option to buy Entergy’s remaining stake in the joint venture. The modernization project, which is expected to create some 600 new jobs, also aims to reduce pollution and meet European Union environmental standards, the statement said. Bulgaria hopes to join the EU in 2007. The ministry said that 348 million euros of the financing would be provided by several foreign and Bulgarian banks. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is to make a 112.1-million-euro loan. Banks Credit Agricole, Societe Generale, Mediocredito, part of Unicredito, and Bank Austria Creditanstalt will provide 140.7 million euros, while four Bulgarian banks, Bulbank, UBB, Biochim and SG Expressbank will provide 75 million euros. The Black Sea Trade and Development Bank will make a 20-million-euro loan.