Spain supports more solar and wind power

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MARCO WERMAN: This is The World. I'm Marco Werman.In spite of the economic downturn, Spain seems determined to continue investing in renewable energy. It's already among the European countries that lead in wind and solar power. And, as Cynthia Graber reports, Spaniards are happy to hear praise from outsiders like President Obama.

BARACK OBAMA: And think about what's happening in countries like Spain, Germany and Japan, where they're making real investments in renewable energy. They're surging ahead of us.

CYNTHIA GRUBER: Spaniards are pretty puffed up these days about the mention, and they've got reason to be proud. On average, wind and solar generate about twelve percent of the country's electricity. On windy days it can contribute up to a third. That beats all countries except Germany and Denmark.

TRAIN RECORDING: Welcome on board this train traveling to Toledo.

GRUBER: If there's a nerve center to this burgeoning industry, it's in the small city of Toledo, about a half hour south of Madrid via, of course, high-speed electric train.

EL CORE EMPLOYEE: El Core, Buenos Dias.

GUSTAVO MORENO: This is a control center, where we work 24 hours a day, and we control and operate, in real time, all the renewable installations that Iberdrola has in the world.

GRUBER: Gustavo Moreno is the director of El Core in Toledo. That's the Control Center for Renewable Energy of the electric utility Iberdrola. The company is the world's largest provider of wind power, and El Core is the world's largest renewable energy brain. Moreno clicks a mouse and changes the image on a big screen to a map of Spain, then to a map of a wind farm, then down to a picture of one turbine.

MORENO: One single turbine is controlled by 300 signals. We have about 6,000. That's about one and a half million points of information. Wind speed is one, potential is another, and a high temperature alarm would be another signal.

GRUBER: Engineers here can check and adjust thousands of functions on every wind turbine in every Iberdrola park in real time. Control centers like these help solve one of the biggest challenges for renewables. Wind and solar power only function when the wind blows or the sun shines. But the power grid is used to a steady, predictable supply of electricity from big power plants. So the Spanish government basically ordered all major renewable operators to set up control centers. They make wind and solar more efficient, and ease their integration into the national grid.

[SOUND OF CONTROL CENTER]

GRUBER: Spain began its renewables effort in the late 1990's out of principle, but also out of necessity. Luis Jesus Sanchez is in charge of renewable energy for Spain's National Energy Council.

LUIS JESUS SANCHEZ: Why was this done? This was done because in Spain, eighty percent of the energy comes from outside the country.

GRUBER: But the country does have windy mountains and abundant sunshine. So the government adopted goals for ramping up renewable power, and they began an incentive system called feed-in tariffs. That's basically a guarantee of a premium rate for renewable energy to cover the higher costs of the still-young technologies. It took the government a while to work out the kinks of the system, but when they did, companies jumped in, and renewable production soared. Wind power took off first because the systems were more advanced. And Keith Hays, an analyst with the firm Emerging Energy Research in Barcelona, says wind laid the groundwork for other technologies.

KEITH HAYS: Now the question is: where are other technologies like that? And the move has been from wind to looking at solar. We could probably say it is kind of next in line in terms of starting to scale.

GRUBER: The most common solar technology in Spain and elsewhere is photovoltaic panels. They use sunlight to move electrons. But the technology is still relatively expensive and inefficient. So with the help of government subsidies, Spanish companies are taking the lead in a technology that instead uses the sun's heat. It's called solar thermal, or concentrated solar power. And the first Spanish commercial solar thermal plant is soaking up the sun on a broad plain outside Seville.

[SOUND OF MACHINERY]

GRUBER: I'm standing at the visitors' platform, 30 meters ? about 90 feet ? high, looking down at a sea of mirrors. All of their faces are facing up at the tower, and you can actually see the rays of sun emanating up from them, straight up at the tower above me. At the top, the sun is flashing the water into steam, and that steam is used to turn a turbine, and produce electricity. The 11-megawatt plant at the Solucar Solar Platform produces enough electricity for a nearby small town. But the site is growing; it's scheduled to expand to 2,500 acres of land and produce enough electricity for 150,000 people. Spain has two solar thermal plants completed and dozens more on the way. And with the experience they've gained over the past decade, Spanish companies have begun making the leap across the ocean.

HAYS: There are vast resources, many companies with capital, with technological know-how, that are going to have a lot of growth opportunities in the U.S.

GRUBER: Energy consultant Hays says Spanish companies are building turbine manufacturing plants, wind farms, and solar thermal plants in the U.S. He says Spaniards see this as another feather in their national cap.

HAYS: You had sort of national pride coming in Spain from Iberdrola going to the U.S., Gamesa going to the U.S., Acciona going all over the place.

GRUBER: Here in Spain, the government says it's on target to meet its next goal of thirty percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But building wind and solar plants is only half the challenge. Until the current recession, Spain's economy grew rapidly over the last decade, and that means people are using a lot more energy. Again, Luis Jesus Sanchez, with the Spanish government.

SANCHEZ: For all that renewable power has grown, it's been eaten by the demand.

GRUBER: And managing demand, Sanchez says, is the Spanish government's next energy frontier. For The World, I'm Cynthia Graber, Madrid, Spain.