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Solar Dreams, Spanish Realities

Facing limits to sun-powered renewable energy. Latest in a series.

Andrew Nikiforuk 1 May

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

This special Tyee series was produced in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society (TCI). Funding was provided by Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation. All funders sign releases guaranteeing The Tyee full editorial autonomy. Tyee funders and TCI neither influence nor endorse the particular content of Tyee reporting.

"We had a lot of hopes and now we're more skeptical."

That's how Pedro Prieto, a 62-year-old global telecom engineer and solar entrepreneur, sums up Spain's famous solar revolution.

Spain's renewable dream, of course, began as sunny-multi-billion-dollar boom. Quasi-religious images of fields of photovoltaics and radiant concentrated solar towers wowed North American greens. (Concentrated solar uses 624 mirrors to focus radiation to a receiver that heats steam to drive a turbine.)

But the revolution rapidly collapsed into a messy economic bust that has left more questions than answers. Moreover, Prieto and his Spanish compatriots are still counting the unpredictable casualties of the nation's stalled energy transition.

Now the engineer is no stranger to solar power. As a telecom engineer he has worked with photovoltaic panels in remote locations since the 1970s. Nor is he a cheerleader for fossil fuels. As the co-founder of the Spanish Association for the Study of Energy Resources, Prieto has long advocated abandoning oil before its volatile pricing and pollution leave the globe in financial and atmospheric chaos.

Since 2004 he has designed, consulted and helped to build more than 30 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) plants. He even manages, operates and partially owns a PV plant that spills one megawatt of juice (enough to power up to 1,000 homes) onto the national electrical grid in the province of Extremadura.

Given his vast technical experience Prieto also consults with governments around the world on solar renewable prospects. And he has also teamed up with ecologist Charles Hall to produce a provocative book: Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment.

These days Prieto ends his presentations, more often than not, by asking to his audience to "pray for alternatives to nuclear."

Prieto is also the sort of guy that practically beams out inconvenient statistics. In 2007 installed solar power amounted to .0006 of the world's electrical consumption and did not keep pace with the growth of electric consumption.

Or as Prieto put it in 2008: "The Energy Consumption Chariot goes over 200 times faster than the Solar Power horses."

Spain, of course, has gained some fame and notoriety as a global solar pioneer. One-tenth in 2009 and one-fifteenth of the world's installed solar power modules now dot the Spanish countryside. But these expansive operations provide but 4.3 per cent of Spain's electricity.

The sun's sheer abundance has always made it the world's most popular renewable form of energy. Of all green alternatives solar energy is the only one whose potential harvest far outstrips the demand for fossil fuels. Enough radiation hits the earth every hour to meet all of the world's electrical needs for a year. By some very optimistic estimates the rapidly growing solar industry could account for 10 per cent of the world's electrical production by 2020.

Sunny climes

Spain, of course, gets more irradiation than any other European country. The nation's sunny plains and deserts absorb about 1,500 terawatt hours of solar energy every year. That represents at least three times more power than what Spain's 46 million citizens actually consume. (A terawatt hour by the way represents enough energy to operate one billion washing machines.)

But achieving that goal might come with some staggering financial costs, significant land disturbance as well as disappointing energy returns. Prieto has even come to view solar power in its current big industrial mindset as just "another extension of fossil fuels."

And he's not short of examples. The sun is renewable but photovoltaics are not. Just to make the silicon used to trap the sun's rays on manufactured wafers requires the melting of silica rock at 3,000 Fahrenheit (1,649 Celsius). And the electricity of coal-fired plants or ultrapurified hydrogen obtained from fossil sources provide the heat to do that. It also takes a fantastic amount of oil to make concrete, glass and steel for solar modules.

But Spain's interest in renewables is no mystery. Not only does the world's 14th economic power rely on fossil fuels more than any other European nation (consumption has doubled in the last decade), but it suffers from a 90 per cent dependency on foreign imports.

This energy servitude combined with the nation's concerns about climate change spurred an unusual revolution in 2004. That's when the government offered generous subsidies or premium tariffs for solar and wind-made electricity added to the national grid. The initiative guaranteed 25-year-long profitable returns of at about 20 per cent for solar entrepreneurs. The government also came up with an inviting mantra, "The Sun Moves Us."

Solar boom

Within short order farmers signed over orchards and plots of land for solar PV farms. Next came concentrated solar tower installations. Unlike Germany's solar revolution, which planted thousands of modules on rooftops, Spain focused its solar growth on installed ground facilities. They are, says Prieto, much more efficient and easy to maintain.

In response to the subsidies factories making silicon wafers and/or assembling modules popped up like orange trees across the nation. Sensing a financial killing, global banks and pension funds poured money into Spain's solar boom the same way they funded financial derivatives or the shale gas revolution in North America.

By 2008 Spain's solar explosion eagerly swallowed half of the globe's photovoltaic module production. Facing module shortages the country even started to import products from Germany, the U.S. and China.

This unexpected development undermined the goal of growing a renewable Spanish industry, says Prieto. (At one point China-based Suntech, the world's largest solar panel manufacturer, sold 40 per cent of its product to Spain. Last month Suntech declared bankruptcy.)

Meanwhile, the boom surpassed every government electrical target says Prieto. The government set an initial goal of creating 400 MW of power from solar power by 2010. But industry surpassed that goal in 2006-7. "Banks and investment funds treated solar like a financial product. These were the days of wine and roses."

But by 2008 the excesses of the boom became readily apparent. For starters, the government realized that it could no longer subsidize renewables for 25 years to the tune of 2.5 billion Euros a year.

And so it issued new royal decrees cutting promised returns from 46 cents a KW hour to 32 cents for investors. Later decrees forced more reductions putting brakes on the entire solar module industry.

"There have been 15 royal decrees on renewables since 2004," explains Prieto. "Each one tries to fix the unanticipated problems of the last one. Each one is worst than the last. But each decree makes renewables less credible." A raft of lawsuits has predictably clogged the courts.

The crash

An industry poised for a massive build-up based on guaranteed returns, explains Prieto, then laid off workers as a debt-heavy government cancelled or lowered promised financial returns from the sun. The solar PV sector now estimates that 44,000 of the nation's 57,900 installations are on the verge of bankruptcy.

During the solar "craziness" as Prieto calls it, other problems emerged too. Investors often planted installations of poor quality and design across the landscape. Many facilities weren't even located in the sunniest parts of Spain.

Spain's renewable boom (wind installations now make up 17 per cent of Spain's electricity supply with peaks covering up to 56 per cent) also created havoc with the nation's energy balance. Government investment in natural gas fired plants (a backup for intermittent wind) combined with renewables resulted in overcapacity in the system. Even the nation's nuclear power plants had to power down from 7.7 to 6.7 gigawatts for a while.

"The energy industry is much more complicated and integrated than anyone thought. The left side of Spain's energy planning brain didn't know what the right side was doing."

But what troubled Prieto most were the paltry energy returns of some 57,900 solar plants, both big and small. He reviewed Spain's excellent data on the energy outputs of the nation's solar network and than compared those findings to actual energy inputs. To his dismay Prieto found that solar offered only slightly better returns than biofuels. Or 2.4 to one.

"That is not enough to maintain society as it is today."

His finding surprised many researchers and for good reason. Previous studies put solar returns as high as eight or even up to 30 to one in some cases, or almost on par with conventional oil.

But most of this research used the same sort of best-case scenario modelling typically employed by car industry mileage studies. As long as the roads are flat, the fuel is good, the tires full and the driver competent, then great mileage can be achieved.

But real life experience can be different for car mileage as well as the energy output for solar installations.

Solar power, fossil fuel inputs

Spain discovered, for example, that the earth is rarely flat (a big issue for tracking and directing solar rays in the right direction). Moreover the modules (only 15 per cent efficient on average) rarely perform as expected. Not only do the panels require regular maintenance but constant cleaning to remove films of dust. And they only last 25 years.

But Prieto added together another 24 factors illustrating the industry's profound dependence on fossil fuels. They included road maintenance, rights of ways, module theft, intermittent loads, as well as the cost of natural gas fired back-up stations. In the end he concluded that the solar industry "eats and spends considerable energy."

Moreover countries such as Germany which receive but two-thirds of Spain's sunlight in the best case and on average deploy much less inefficient rooftop arrays will probably have returns one-fifth to one-third lower than Spain.

"Solar installations are dependent on a fossil fuel world and there are difficulties scaling up the power of the sun," says Prieto.

And what does Prieto think of big plans to industrialize the deserts of the U.S. southwest to provide power for the east? Or plans to colonize the Sahara desert of North Africa for European delights?

Not much, he replies sadly. The engineer calculates that just one plan proposed by former French prime inister Nicolas Sarkozy was so big that it was obsolete before it harvested one solar ray. The plan would have covered 400 sq. km of land and burned three to six million tons of coal to erect 1.8 to 3.6 million tons of steel and two to four million tons of glass. Vast amounts of clean water and lakes of desalinated water would have been needed to maintain the plants. Yet the plan would have generated only three per cent of the electricity that nations of the Mediterranean basin now consume. Such a scheme would exchange the political insecurity of oil and gas pipelines with high voltage cable lines.

"It would be far more rational to strive for a world with far lower levels of more localized demand and widely distributed, small and local generation and distribution networks where possible," the engineer concluded in a recent editorial.

Nations as solar plantations

Big Solar would also turn poor countries like Morocco into virtual solar plantations or colonies that feed electrical power to wealthy at a project cost of $60-billion. (Another unrealistic forecast suggests that industrial solar plants in the Sahara could produce enough energy for 100 million homes for half a trillion dollars by 2050. Prieto says this plan, dubbed Desertec would be lucky to achieve 30 per cent of Europe's electrical needs.)

582px version of Total-Installed-PV-Capacity.jpg

But the big issue for solar is simply scaling up the enterprise to capture enough of the sun's rays to retire just a fraction of fossil fuels. Prieto calculates, for example, that to replace all electricity made by nuclear and fossil fuels in Spain would take a solar module complex covering 6,000 sq. km of the country at the cost the entire Spanish budget (1.2 billion Euros in 2007). It would also require the equivalent of 300 billion car batteries to store the energy for night-time use.

Prieto is not alone in reaching such sobering conclusions. A 2013 Stanford University report, for example, calculated that global photovoltaic industry now requires more electricity to make silicon wafers and solar troughs than it actually produces in return. Since 2000 the industry consumed 75 per cent more energy than it put onto the grid and all during its manufacturing and installation process.

Moreover it won't pay off this energy debt or energy consumed in its construction until 2016. As a consequence, ramping up of industrial solar production produces more greenhouse gases than it saves for nearly a decade. The study also recommended that reducing the fossil fuel inputs for a next generation of photovoltaic systems be a key priority.

"We have to leave oil before it leaves us," says Prieto paraphrasing the famous Fatih Birol quote, "and it is not good for nature or the planet."

Back to the village

"In my opinion we can use solar PV energy, as far as it is available and we can afford it for specific applications," says Prieto. But he now views solar PV systems as "non-renewable energy systems that can only capture a portion of the renewable energies temporarily."

Moreover there is no way solar power can sustain "our present wasteful way of living."

In Spain where nearly a quarter of the workforce sits idle and political unrest smolders in the cities, there is much talk about "La vida buena" or what the French call "decroissance" or degrowth.

The grassroots movement is all about living better by consuming less and sharing more. Prieto suspects the future may be determined more by behavior change than by investments in renewables.

"In general terms, I would suggest we make every possible effort to move towards a lower consumption and lower mobility society," sums up the 62-year-old.

"We need to deurbanize and localize as much as it is possible, and to return to the countryside, as much as it is possible, and to use more animal draft force."

When asked for advice on what other nations should do, Prieto thoughtfully pauses.

"It is difficult to give advice."  [Tyee]

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