June 3, 2008
For the past ten years, Spain has invested heavily in wind energy. After Denmark and Germany it is the third most important generator of wind energy in Europe. In doing so, Spain has acquired precious experience in the design and installation of wind turbines as well as the development of large-scale wind parks.
In 2008, Spain will usher in the era of solar power generation, with the first solar thermal power plant to be connected with the grid.
Spain will be the first European country to invest in solar thermal power generation, a technology that so far has only been applied in California, 25 years ago, after the second oil shock. Spain enjoys ample sunshine and a dry climate to make solar power generation attractive; and it may in due time, transpose its experience to Africa, the Sahara offering a huge potential for solar power generation, both thermal and photovoltaic.
In order to get its foothold into solar thermal power generation, the Spanish government offers generous subsidies: a feed-in tariff of 27 Cent/kWh for 25 years. It is therefore not surprising that investors flock into the sector. Five power plants are under construction and some 40, all with a capacity of 50 MW, in the planning stage. By 2020 Spain might thus dispose of a thermal-solar power capacity of about 2000 MW.
That is not much compared to present and future wind parks, whose total capacity in Europe exceeds 50 000 MW. But solar power plants represent a useful complement to wind energy: for lulls and for peak electricity demand in the afternoon. Unlike wind, solar electricity can be programmed with some precision, and it can be stored for at least seven hours after sunset, through heating of large quantities of liquefied salt.
The big open question is: which solar technology will prevail? Photovoltaic power generation has so far been a niche-technology, compared with solar thermal. PV panels have become the dominant technology for decentralised electricity generation, on house roofs and in facades, while the solar thermal technology has been successfully applied to large-scale electricity generation in California.
By encouraging private firms to invest in solar thermal installations, the Spanish government keeps the options open for the future. It gains valuable experience with a technology that has not gone beyond the stage of pilot projects in Europe. That is by itself worth while and deserves praise. In due time, Turkey and Greece might follow its example. Morocco and Algeria are already constructing thermal one solar power plant each.Eberhard Rhein