I will admit lately my first thoughts have not been about clean energy. A couple days ago, it was about 70 ˚F outside. There was barely a cloud in the sky and there was a nice cool breeze. My thoughts were more along the line of how nice it would be to put this weather in a bottle and bring it back to Cambridge, MA. Although I enjoyed my time in Copenhagen and Madrid, I really appreciate the pace of life in Seville, especially considering our last night in Denmark (cold rain and sleet). We are travelling through the countryside of Spain on our way to the Abengoa concentrated solar plant (CSP) just outside of Seville in Andalucía.
Earlier that morning we listened to different Abengoa corporate representatives deliver presentations about the company and its interests in the clean energy sector. The company is involved in various aspects of clean energy including solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, and biofuels. It was interesting to note that Abengoa is one of the few energy generating companies that we visited that did not have a wind energy presence in its technology portfolio. Further inquiry revealed that the company exited the wind energy market due to its in-house technology not being able to compete. With the growing popularity of wind energy and long projected viability of solar energy and bio-fuels, time will tell if this is the correct strategic move.
For the most part, it is wonderful bus ride through the Spanish rural terrain; however, as we approach the CSP site, the roads get narrower and rougher. It is one thing to talk about creating energy from the sun, but it is another thing to actually see it with the naked eye. It is easy to tell we are getting closer because not only are the CSP towers strikingly discernable against the landscape, but you can see faint traces of sunrays being reflected up towards the towers. It is a pretty amazing sight to behold. I had seen photographs depicting this phenomenon, but I had falsely assumed that the picture had been altered. We would later learn that the site has a PS10 (~10 MW), PS20 (~20 MW), and a much smaller tower used for experiments. There is an array of mirrors in endless rows reflecting the sun up towards the towers. The top of the towers (the focal point) is so bright that you really cannot look at it to long with the naked eye (sunglass give you a much better view). What is a little eerie is the silence. There is no constant whirring noise or vibrations typical to other types of power plants. It is quiet, but it is not hard to believe that work is being done here. In some ways it is similar to the quietness of an electric vehicle…very little noise, but you experience the power. Meanwhile, the towers bask in the light being reflected up to them.
I have to admit that I am excited about the prospects of solar energy. To be able to harness the power of the sun is ideal dating back to ancient times. The only troubling clouds that fog my mind are the heavy reliance on government subsidies. I think the government should be involved in developing new clean energy technologies. It has been done in so many sectors, time after time…transportation, energy, technology, information, etc. However, I believe the role the government should be to incentivize the private sector to innovate and push industries forward. This is easier said than done. To be successful governments have to be forward thinking, flexible, and have the finances to make the investments. In the case of Spain, I believe they were forward thinking, but I think they made a poor policy choice. It is easy to see how poor policy decisions can happen. In new industries innovation is typically always moving forward and it is difficult for governments to keep up with the pace. However, I do think the more critical factor is flexibility. Poor policy decisions are to be expected; however, you need tools in place to analyze policy and make decisions accordingly. With the current financial situation in Europe, Spain’s hands were forced to renege on the bad policy decisions. The level set for feed-in tariffs were not sustainable. Even more worrisome are the levelized costs of solar in comparison to traditional energy. Even when sunbathing, no one likes to get burnt. By retroactively changing the amount of the feed-in tariffs for solar, this could prove detrimental to future investment in Spain. Time will tell the fallout from the new solar policy direction in Spain. Hopefully more CSP towers will continue to bask in the sun. Not just in Spain, but in other parts of the world.