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Spanish Solar Leadership

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WALL STREET JOURNAL

December 5, 2006

 

Sun Reigns on Spain's Plains

 

Madrid Leads a Global Push to Capitalize On New Solar-Power Technologies

By LEILA ABBOUD

 

In the arid plains outside Seville, Spain, stands a 380-foot concrete tower surrounded by 600 huge mirrors. Together, they form a new generation of solar-power plant that will be able to deliver enough electricity to supply a town of 6,000 people.

 

The plant employs a technology called concentrating solar power, or CSP, which represents a sort of holy grail for the energy industry: an attempt to produce commercially viable solar power on a grand scale. Despite the fact solar-generated electricity is more expensive to produce than power from traditional sources such as coal or natural gas and other renewables, European companies and governments are pushing its adoption as part of their search for cleaner energy

sources that don't exacerbate global warming.

 

A host of CSP projects are under way around Europe, especially in Spain, where the government set up incentives. Governments elsewhere on the Continent also are using subsidies to bolster alternative energy. The European Union, as part of its fight against global warming under the Kyoto treaty, set a goal for member countries to double the amount of power generated by renewable sources to 12% by 2010. The German government set up subsidies to encourage the installation of photovoltaic solar panels on buildings and homes, while Denmark has had success by subsidizing wind power over the past decade.

 

CSP technology was pioneered by the U.S. Energy Department in the late 1980s, and nine plants were built in the California desert before 1990. But it is only recently that CSP has attracted attention from industry, as high energy prices and concerns about global warming have increased interest in renewable energy.

 

"After wind power, solar thermal is the next renewable energy that can be used on a wide scale," said Todd Allmendinger of Emerging Energy Research in Barcelona.

 

Though CSP technology is still in its early stages, power companies and specialized engineering firms recently have begun to pour investments into it. More than 45 CSP projects are in the planning stages world-wide, and four projects are expected to begin commercial operations in the next 18 months in the U.S. and Spain, according to consultancy Emerging Energy Research.

 

The plants are much more powerful than the classic and more familiar photovoltaic panels, which use semiconductor chips to convert sunlight into electricity. A typical installation of solar panels on a roof, for example, can generate about 400 kilowatts of electricity, enough to feed a medium-size office building. A CSP plant like the one being built outside Seville by Spanish engineering and construction company Abengoa SA can generate as much as 11 megawatts, enough to power a small town.

 

CSP technology uses a huge array of mirrors to track the sun and collect its heat in different ways. In the plant near Seville, the mirrors focus the sun's rays on a single point -- in much the same way a child might use a magnifying glass to burn an ant. The heat from the concentrated sunlight creates steam, which powers a turbine. Some of the heat is also stored in oil or molten salt so it can keep the turbine running after sunset or when clouds pass overhead.

 

There have been previous investment booms and busts in solar power. And the technology has yet to deliver a sizable contribution to the world's energy needs. Only about 2% of the world's electricity came from renewable energies like wind and solar in 2004, according to the International Energy Agency. But some observers believe this time could be different because, unlike solar panels, CSP produces energy on a much larger scale, akin to that of a small or midsize power plant. However, skeptics note it still depends on subsidies to make it commercially viable.

 

Because CSP produces zero emissions and can be rolled out anyplace the sun shines intensely, it has also found adherents among environmentalists and policy makers. But generating electricity with solar-thermal technologies remains expensive. Though the technology is advancing and becoming more cost-effective, it still costs 12 to 15 cents to generate one kilowatt hour of electricity with CSP, compared with four cents when generated by a coal-fired plant.

 

The higher costs stalled investment in CSP for years, says Tom Mancini, CSP program manager at the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories, creating a sort of Catch-22. With few large-scale CSP plants up and running, engineers had trouble fine-tuning the generating process to make it more efficient. And the price of the specialized equipment, such as the large mirrors, also remained high.

 

"In technology development, we call it the valley of death," says Mr. Mancini. But he believes that with so many new plants coming online soon, CSP is on the cusp of commercial viability.

 

Spain, where electricity demand is increasing 4% to 6% a year and the sunny, dry climate is ideal for solar power, has been the world's most aggressive in pushing CSP. Madrid set a goal of building 500 megawatts of solar-thermal generation capacity by 2010. To get there, it set up a system of "feed-in" tariffs for CSP plants that requires utility companies to buy electricity generated by the plants at a premium rate to foster solar technology.

 

The incentives set off a race to build CSP projects that now stand to generate more power than the government's target. Iberdrola SA, the country's second-largest utility by revenue and generating capacity, plans to build 550 megawatts of CSP capacity. German firm Solar Millennium AG plans to build 400 megawatts of CSP plants in Spain.

 

Abengoa, which built the solar tower near Seville, plans seven more plants in the area, capable of supplying 180,000 homes -- the equivalent of the city of Seville. Construction of a new plant costs between $250 million and $500 million, depending on the type of CSP technology used.

 

Companies around Europe are experimenting with different ways of bringing down the cost of CSP power. Enel SpA of Italy has grafted a CSP plant onto an existing coal-fired power plant in Sicily. The CSP plant creates additional steam for the coal-fired plant's turbine, generating about 10% more power. By using the same turbine, it also cut down on the CSP plant's construction cost.

 

In the U.S., the first CSP plant to be built in more than a decade is going up in the Nevada desert, slated to start generating 64 megawatts of power next year. It is being built by SolarGenix, which was recently acquired by Spanish engineering conglomerate Acciona SA. The project is likely to benefit from a federal tax credit that covers 30% of the capital investment in renewable-energy plants.

 

With their acres of bright mirrors, the plants are stunning to behold. They are also eerily silent compared with a conventional power plant. There has been little public resistance to their construction, mostly because they lie in remote areas. But that could change as the prime sites are used up.

 

"If people complain about wind turbines, what are they going to think when they see a few hundred acres of mirrors being built in their backyards?" said Emerging Energy's Mr. Allmendinger.

 

 

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posted to ClimateConcern

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