|A solar power plant in Alvarado. - Reuters|
Spain's hopes of becoming a world leader in solar power have collapsed since the Spanish government slammed the brakes on generous subsidies.
The sudden change has rippled across the global solar industry, in a warning of the problems that government-supported renewable-energy programs can encounter.
In 2008, Spain accounted for half the world's new solar-power installations in terms of wattage, thanks to government subsidies to promote clean energy. But late last year, as the global economic crisis worsened, the government dramatically scaled back those subsidies and capped the amount of subsidized solar power that could be installed.
Factories world-wide that had ramped up production of solar-power components found that demand for solar panels was plummeting, leaving a glut in supply and pushing prices down. Job cuts followed.
"The solar industry in 2009 has been undermined by [a] collapse in demand due to the decision by Spain," says Henning Wicht, a solar-power analyst at research group iSuppli.
Spain is providing important lessons for the U.S., where lawmakers are engaged in a debate about how to support renewable energy. Boosters of clean energy, including President Barack Obama, have pointed to Spain as a success story showing how government policies jump-started renewable energy, created new industries, and helped the environment.
Spain's early bet on wind power paid off: The country is one of the world leaders in generating such power, only recently eclipsed by the U.S. Spanish wind-power companies have become global players. In 2008, wind power accounted for 11% of Spanish electricity production, compared to less than 1% for solar power.
Reyad Fezzani, chief executive of BP Solar, a unit of oil giant BP PLC, said that despite the current crisis, the Spanish model succeeded in creating a solar industry from scratch. "Once you pay for the infrastructure, you have a skilled work force and you can expand and contract very easily," he said.
Clean-energy skeptics, however, point to Spain as a cautionary tale of a government policy that created a speculative bubble with disastrous consequences. Some Republicans have cited Spain's solar bubble and bust as an example of how unsustainable government clean-energy pushes are.
The U.S. is experimenting with different ways to promote clean energy, including tax incentives and direct federal subsidies to defray installation costs, and mandates for utilities to get a certain amount of their power from renewable energy.
California and New Jersey, which lead the U.S. in solar power, are among states that have used subsidies similar to the ones in Spain to make solar power more attractive. Two House Democrats, Jay Inslee of Washington and Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts, are drafting legislation that would create European-style tariffs for solar power.
The industry's fundamental problem is that, without subsidies, it's still not economically viable.
Mike Ahearn, chief executive of Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar Corp., says solar power could be competitive "within a couple of years" -- but only if the industry gains scale. That would require generous government subsidies and other forms of support, Mr. Ahearn says: "It's a chicken-and-egg problem."
Spain's solar ambitions started as an outgrowth of its earlier push to become a global player in wind power. By offering generous long-term support for wind power, Spain became a world leader. Companies such as Iberdrola SA and Gamesa Corp. catapulted from their home market to the U.S.
Wind energy was a cheaper renewable option than solar, so the Spanish government sought to make solar power more attractive by increasing subsidies, just as other countries, particularly Germany, were scaling back support.
As a result, Spain's solar capacity last year increased to 3,342 megawatts from 695 megawatts, the size of a coal plant, a year earlier. Government subsidies for solar power jumped to €1.1 billion ($1.6 billion) in 2008 from €214 million in 2007.
Solar power "was a financial product, not an energy solution," says Ignacio Sánchez Galán, chairman of Iberdrola, the world's biggest renewable-energy company. Iberdrola has largely shunned solar because wind power is cheaper and requires less land.
That's especially true of the new wave of large-scale solar power, known as solar thermal power, which uses the sun to heat water into steam which runs turbines. That technology offers the potential for much bigger clean-energy projects than silicon-coated photovoltaic panels, and has attracted interest from utilities in Spain and the U.S., especially. But solar thermal power is far from being cost-competitive with traditional power sources, and it requires large swathes of empty land, such as those found in parts of Spain and the U.S. Southwest.
Faced with the unraveling world economy and a deepening budget deficit, the Spanish government late last year reduced the money it paid for solar electricity and capped the amount of subsidized solar power installed each year at 500 megawatts. Spain's solar-power capacity has actually shrunk this year as a result.
The effects have been felt far beyond Spain. China's Yingli Green Energy Holding Co., which makes solar-power components for export, posted a 43% slide in first-quarter earnings, in large part because Spain was no longer buying.
Yiyu Wang, Yingli's chief strategic officer, said the Spanish experience could teach governments around the world to undertake "more practical, more stable plans."
Solar makers such as Norway's Renewable Energy Corp., China's LDK Solar Co. and JA Solar Holdings Co. posted big second-quarter losses. German giant Q-Cells posted a first-half net loss of €697 million and plans to cut about 500 workers, about a fifth of its work force.
"We are without a doubt in a difficult situation," Q-Cells CEO Anton Milner wrote in a report to shareholders.