World's largest solar plant powers up

Spanish venture is as big as 210 football pitches and has 600,000 mirrors. But there's a dark side

A A A

Just under a month ago, on an empty mountain plateau in Andalusia, the last of 600,000 parabolic mirrors were connected, and Andasol, the world's largest solar power station, become operational. It is, as it glints in the Spanish sun, a shining example – literally – of what renewable energy offers.

Big almost beyond belief, it is powerful, clean and looks unlike any power station you could ever imagine. Spread over terrain which covers the equivalent of 210 football pitches, there is nothing to see behind the security fences and drainage ditches but interminable lines of gleaming, eerily silent, parabolic mirrors. They gyrate simultaneously to follow the sun's path through the sky – for all the world like an enormous Star Wars android army awaiting orders from above to destroy the local populace.

The bleak, empty flatlands of the Guadix plateau, 30 miles from Granada, were chosen by the backers of Andasol, a joint venture by four German companies, as the location for their €350m (£293bn) investment because, at 1,100 metres above sea level, Guadix's atmosphere is clearer and less turbulent than lower altitudes. Purely because of that, it captures more solar energy than the entire Saudi Arabian peninsula.

Other plus points include an ample underground spring system, which supplies water for the turbines, as well as 2,000 hours of sunlight per annum. And if a conveniently close high-voltage power line was an indispensable factor, so too was the degree of local government support. For all these reasons, if solar power is going to work anywhere, it's going to work here. But there are clouds on the horizon.

When Rainer Kistner, Andasol's director, talks about business prospects, he can find little cause for celebration. The source of his woes are the so-called feed-in tariffs, the indirect government subsidy which acts as the financial lifeblood for renewable energy projects. They were slashed by half last week in the UK, and, Kistner fears, they face equally dismal prospects in Spain, too.

"In the future, we know that tariffs will go down. Dramatically," Kistner gloomily predicts. "It cannot affect existing power plants" – such as Andasol – "but the government has to give some sort of guarantee to the investors. It can't say it'll pay so many euros per kilowatt hour... for the next 25 years and two years later say 'Sorry, but we'll give you only half of this'."

Spanish and UK solar energy are not alone in facing an imminent crisis. Globally, renewable energy is on the retreat, to the point where last month the Ernst & Young accountancy firm warned that, should the eurozone debt crisis worsen, a climate funding gap of $45bn (£29bn) worldwide could emerge by 2015.

Even if government cuts do not deepen, which is unlikely, the Ernst & Young report claimed that a gap of $22.5bn on investment in renewable energy and subsidies is likely to emerge across 10 leading world economies in less than four years. Among them is the UK where the shortfall is estimated to be $5bn, while in Spain – effectively confirming Kistner's fears – it would be $6bn.

"Continuing economic uncertainty is pushing a low-carbon economy further out of reach," said Juan Costa Climent, Ernst & Young's global climate analyst. And the International Energy Agency's chief economist, Fatih Birol, warned recently in the Spanish newspaper El País that "renewable energies are going through a very difficult period. Countries are cutting subsidies to reduce the [public] deficit. And that is legitimate, but it will have long-term implications."

Andasol's Kistner recognises that renewal energy subsidies have been part of the political discussion on how to reduce Spain's deficit, but he points a finger at the "big electrical companies who would like to lay the blame on renewable energy companies for the increase in price. They've already reduced the tariff for photovoltaic solar energy. The Spanish government right now is nearly bankrupt. And we are living under laws from when the situation was healthy. Our plant should not be affected, but I'm worried about new projects. In a completely liberalised market, there would never be any chance for a new [electricity-producing] technology because the risks are too high."

The real victim of these cuts and the blame games between the electrical companies, as ever, is the environment. While countries such as Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions last week, Andasol's production alone prevents nearly 500,000 tons of CO2 from being pumped into the atmosphere per annum. And while some media reports say Andasol's output of 150 megawatts is relatively modest, it still provides enough energy for a city of half a million inhabitants.

Part of the explanation for Andasol's high output is that, rather than using the better-known photovoltaic solar energy system, which directly creates electrical current, its linear solar concentrators in the mirrors absorb the heat. The heat is then transferred and thermally stored in some 30,000 tons of salt – heat which can keep the electricity-producing steam turbines turning for up to eight hours after sunset.

"The challenge for most renewable energy sources is that you have to provide electricity whenever the end- consumer needs it," says Kistner. "A photovoltaic solar power needs the sun, but if you want to watch a football game at 10pm or cook a meal you don't care about that. And storing electricity, rather than storing solar heat, like our power station does, is very expensive."

Given the relentless series of government cuts, it is hardly surprising that those companies still keen to invest in renewables are looking further afield. In North Africa, for example, an international venture called Desertec Industrial Initiative has recently announced plans for a Sahara-wide, €400bn solar energy project, starting in the region of Ouarzazzatte in Morocco in 2015.

Desertec's plans could produce 15 per cent of Europe's electricity by 2050, managing director Paul van Son told the news agency Reuters last month. Space – vital for thermal solar plants which could dwarf even somewhere like Andasol – is hardly lacking in the Sahara, either. According to Desertec, it receives as much solar energy in six hours as the entire world uses in a year. "It's interesting, and there are definitely locations that are better than here," Kistner says, "even if the huge political projects take a lot of time. Ultimately, in any case, there is no other choice but renewable energies."

However, Kistner says the companies behind Andasol are very nervous about future projects because of their concerns about the ebbing tide of government feed-in tariffs for renewables. While the cuts continue, those concerns can only increase.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker