After Aiming Too High, Spain Renews Solar Push

Aug 8, 2011
Originally published on March 31, 2014 3:32 pm

The streets of Madrid are sizzling in the summer. The sun bears down on everything — including the solar panels dotting houses, offices and even parking meters. Solar energy makes sense in Spain, and it's attracted people like Juan Casanovas.

Casanovas says he first became interested in the solar industry in 2003 "because it's a democratic way to generate electricity." He says people can become self-sufficient in energy.

It's also a sector with green jobs — an area that President Obama and the his administration are looking to as a possible antidote to the high unemployment rate in the U.S.

But Spain, which is facing serious economic problems, also provides a cautionary tale about overreaching.

Consider the experience of Casanovas. He taught himself how the industry worked, and then began consulting for companies looking to build solar plants.

In 2007, the Spanish government offered incentives for solar energy, offering to pay 40 cents for each kilowatt-hour generated by solar power. By comparison, consumers pay about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour at home.

Surprise Solar Stampede, And Crash

That triggered a huge rush in Spain — installers were trained and deployed across the country, and 40,000 projects were completed within two years.

"It was an absolute surprise," says Tomas Diaz, who represents ASIF, the Spanish photovoltaic industry association. "Everybody was saying, 'There's some kind of mistake, because that's impossible."

It wasn't impossible. But it did turn out to be unsustainable. As clouds formed over the Spanish economy, the government was strapped for cash and had to cut back on the subsidies. The sector crashed. Investments froze. Many solar businesses fizzled, or went abroad. Industry sources say up to 5,000 people lost their full-time jobs, including Casanovas.

Despite these setbacks, the industry is regrouping. Censolar — a company based in the sun-drenched southern city of Sevilla — provides remote training for people who still want to get into the solar industry. Enrollment is down from the boom years, according to Enrique Carmona from Censolar, but people are still applying.

"There's interest, but the economy's really bad in Spain. People just don't have money to invest in education," Carmona says.

And it's tougher for Censolar's graduates to find jobs these days. Alberto Soria, one of the teachers, faults his government.

"What happened in Spain we call a crash, but really it's the result of poor planning by the government," he says.

New Plan For New Reality

Isidoro Tapia is the secretary general of IDEA, the government agency responsible for promoting renewable energy.

"We had a plan. The thing was that our plan was surpassed by the reality," Tapia says.

The agency is working on a new plan now, and he says the U.S. can learn from Spain's experience. He cautions against overextending the industry, but says you still have to be ambitious.

"You have to set ambitious targets to make this sector move," he says.

Miquel Munoz, who studies renewable energy at Boston University's Pardee Center, agrees. He says the U.S. government must create the right conditions for these investments.

"Policies have to be stable and predictable to make long-term plans — because that allows you to train people, that allows you to have the investment," he says.

In Spain, its solar sector has shown signs of recovery despite the country's larger economic problems. In Madrid, Juan Casanovas has once again found work in solar energy. "I believe in it, and I want to keep fighting," he says.

And he is not alone. Spain's solar sector has set the ambitious target of doubling its contribution to the national grid by 2020.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, Spain is in some trouble, even though it has invested heavily in recent years in green jobs, specifically in the solar sector. That is something that other countries have considered as a possible anecdote to high unemployment.

But reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro says Spain offers a cautionary tale on how to execute what sounds like a bright idea.

(Soundbite of traffic sounds)

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO: The streets of Madrid are hot. The sun bears down onto the people and onto the solar panels dotting some of the houses, offices and even parking meters here. Solar energy makes sense in Spain, and it's attracted people like Juan Casanovas.

Mr. JUAN CASANOVAS: (Spanish spoken)

SHAPIRO: Casanovas says he became interested in the solar industry in 2003, because it's a democratic way to generate electricity. He says people can become self-sufficient for their energy. It's also a sector with green jobs. Casanovas taught himself the field, and consulted for companies looking to build solar plants.

In 2007, the Spanish government stimulated solar, offering to pay 40 cents on the kilowatt-hour. That's really high. By comparison, you pay about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour at home. That triggered a huge rush in Spain. Installers were trained and deployed across the country, and 40,000 projects were completed within two years.

Tomas Diaz represents ASIF, the Spanish Photovoltaic Industry Association.

Mr. TOMAS DIAZ (Director of communications, ASIF): It was an absolute surprise. I remember that nobody believed that. Everybody was saying, there's some kind of mistake, because that's impossible.

SHAPIRO: But it wasn't impossible. The government compensated by cutting back on the subsidies. The sector crashed. Investments froze. Many solar businesses dried up or went abroad. Industry sources say up to 5,000 people lost their full-time jobs, including Casanovas.

Mr. CASANOVAS: (Spanish spoken)

SHAPIRO: Casanovas says there just wasn't a market, so he couldn't make a living. There weren't opportunities to do anything, he says.

SHAPIRO: Despite these disappointments, there are still those trying to get into this sector. Censolar, a company based in the sun-drenched southern city of Sevilla, remotely trains people in the solar industry. Although their enrolment's down from the boom years, according to Enrique Carmona from Censolar, they're getting three times as many applications for scholarships than they can offer.

Mr. ENRIQUE CARMONA (Censolar): (Through translator) There's interest, but the economy's really bad in Spain. People just don't have money to invest in education.

SHAPIRO: And it's tougher for Censolar's graduates to find jobs these days. Alberto Soria, one of the teachers, faults his government.

Mr. ALBERTO SORIA (Teacher): (Through translator) What happened in Spain, we call a crash. But really, it's the result of poor planning by the government.

Mr. ISIDORO TAPIA (Secretary General, IDEA): We had a plan. The thing that was our plan was surpassed by reality.

SHAPIRO: Isidoro Tapia is the Secretary General of IDAE, the government agency responsible for promoting renewable energies. They're working on a new plan now, which, among other goals, intends to create employment. And he says that as the U.S. looks to create green jobs, it can learn from Spain. He cautions against overextending the industry, but says you still have to be ambitious.

Mr. TAPIA: You have to set ambitious targets to make this sector move. The other thing, it's the financial institution must make all financial support for the industry.

SHAPIRO: Miquel Munoz agrees. He studies renewable energy at Boston University's Pardee Center. He says the U.S. government must create the right conditions for these investments.

Mr. MIQUEL MUNOZ: Policies have to be stable and predictable to make long-term plans, because that allows you to train people. That allows you to have the investment in capital and the awareness raising.

SHAPIRO: As for Spain, their solar sector's been recovering steadily. Back in Madrid, Juan Casanovas has finally found work in solar energy. He still cares deeply about the industry.

Mr. CASANOVAS: I believe in it, and I want to keep fighting. (Spanish spoken)

SHAPIRO: Casanovas adds that you have to fight for what you believe in. And if Spain's solar sector - which intends to double its contribution to the national grid by 2020 - is any indication, it's a fight not letting up anytime soon.

For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.