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Solar: misery in Spain.

20-08-2013
Spain's guaranteed sunshine draws in 10 million German tourists a year, so how come sun-starved Germany has eight times more solar panels installed than Spain? Ignorance, excessive bureaucracy and inadequate subsidies are preventing the Mediterranean country from tapping the energy potential of what is arguably its biggest natural resource, industry sources and environmentalists say. Increasing use of solar and other renewable energies may be vital to help Spain meet its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Currently, it is the worst performer among European Union states, falling behind its Kyoto targets. A square metre (10.76 square feet) of rooftop in Madrid could generate double the amount of solar power produced by the equivalent roof in Frankfurt, the sources say. Lack of technology is not the problem. A privately-owned Spanish company, Isofoton, is the biggest European manufacturer of solar panels but it exports 80 percent of its production. U.S. energy company Astropower has a Spanish subsidiary Atersa, which manufactures in Spain and similarly exports four-fifths of its product. Spain is in theory committed to producing 12 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010 and within this the government has set a target of producing 135 megawatts of solar power a year. To date Spain produces just 12 megawatts and most panels are small installations for isolated buildings rather than larger ones connected to the national grid. “One of the biggest problems is lack of information. There is much greater environmental awareness in Germany than in Spain,” says Ernesto Macias, commercial and marketing director of Isofoton. “We need a publicity campaign directed at opinion formers.” Carmen Becerril, the government's director-general of energy policy, defends Spain's track record on renewable energies, of which solar energy is a part. “Production of renewable energies in Spain continues to increase and to carry more weight in the energy balance... Renewable energies account for 22.9 percent of electricity generation, quite a significant contribution,” she said. But environmentally conscious householders who would like to install a solar panel on their roof are put off by the amount of paperwork involved in obtaining a subsidy. The process is “terrifying”, one industry source said, citing 200 pages of documentation. That alone should not be enough to deter many Spaniards, who have a long and proud tradition of bureaucracy and are skilled at finding the shortest way around it. Another drawback is cost. “Solar power is more expensive if you measure it by conventional means, although if you use long-term and environmental yardsticks it's cheaper,” says Jose Luis Garcia Ortega of the environmental group Greenpeace. Subsidies need to be higher, industry sources say. Only 50 solar generating units were installed and connected to the electricity grid during 2000, government statistics show. “They are not profitable to begin with and as this is just starting up people don't know how long it will take to cover their costs,” said Atersa's commercial director Enrique Alcor. It takes between eight and 14 years to amortise the cost of a solar panel, depending on the level of subsidies, another industry source said. Smaller installations, of less than five kilowatts, receive double the price for their electricity than bigger ones. “People are not prepared to take on an investment that takes so long to become profitable,” Alcor said. To date there are only two small solar power stations in Spain, generating one and two megawatts of power respectively, but there are at least two big projects in the works. Atersa and others have plans to build a 12 megawatt plant in the parched southeast of the country, which if it goes ahead would be the biggest in Europe. The partners are looking for financing. “If there's no help, the numbers don't add up,” Alcor said. Isofoton says it and other investors, including the regional government of Castilla La Mancha, are planning a 10 megawatt plant in the sparsely populated central province of Ciudad Real. “In Spain we are lucky. We have not only the sun, we also have a lot of space,” Macias said. Rafa Montes, a member of the environmental group Ecologists in Action, agrees with Macias that a publicity campaign is needed and says his group is working with local authorities to encourage them to install solar power. He believes there are political forces at play too. “Personally I believe the government is under pressure from the big electricity companies,” he said. “Solar and wind energy cannot be monopolised.” The two big power companies, Endesa and Iberdrola, still dominate the market and exercise considerable political clout. It will be some time then before Spain exploits its sunshine for more than attracting millions of sun-seeking northern European holidaymakers. And the more environmentally aware northerners may meanwhile steal the initiative.

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