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  • These are the solar power towers of southern Spain.

  • This is one of the sunniest parts of Europe,

  • and these were two of the first solar towers ever built.

  • Almost 2,000 heliostats, movable mirrors,

  • constantly reflect the sun onto the towers, heating up water into steam,

  • and powering a turbine to generate electricity.

  • And if you look online,

  • you'll see quite a few documentaries who've gotten a tour around there,

  • who've been incredibly impressed by the technology,

  • and who've been selling them as the future of power generation.

  • And these are impressive.

  • Not just visually,

  • the technology behind them is both very clever and very simple:

  • it's like bothering your teacher with the sunlight reflection off your phone,

  • just on a much, much bigger scale.

  • But there is a catch.

  • When these were built, Spain was in boom times,

  • and heavily subsidising solar power.

  • Investors loved it and piled in with their own money,

  • companies and researchers were happy to set up all sorts of things like this,

  • and suddenly the Spanish government had many times the amount of solar power they'd planned for...

  • and they had to subsidise all of it.

  • And then the financial crash hit.

  • The Spanish government cut subsidies.

  • Not just for the future,

  • not just for the plants that were under construction,

  • but even for the plants that were already built

  • and relying on those subsidies to balance the books.

  • The industry got cold feet: Spain had altered the deal,

  • and all the solar companies could do was pray they didn't alter it any further.

  • Or go bankrupt, one of the two.

  • This might still have been viable, maybe,

  • with some more research and development,

  • and that's what they were trying to do.

  • But now, the cost of regular,

  • everyday solar panels is tumbling.

  • Not mirrors, not like this,

  • just normal solar panels, the sort that you can fit to your house

  • or that get put out in massive fields as solar farms,

  • converting sunlight directly to electricity.

  • Whether the price of those panels is going to keep falling

  • depends on which team of researchers you believe,

  • but it's already cheaper than building a giant tower,

  • putting in either high pressure water or molten salt for it to heat,

  • and dealing with thousands of moving parts that all have to line up and track the sun

  • perfectly

  • and which might, occasionally, cook a few birds in mid-flight.

  • Don't get me wrong, this is a great bit of technology on paper.

  • It combines renewable energy with storage:

  • if you're heating up something like molten salt,

  • you can save that power for hours to get you through the night.

  • And there are other plants like it being built:

  • there's one nearly completed in the Atacama Desert in South America.

  • But right now,

  • this is expensive.

  • It might not have been,

  • if history had taken a different track,

  • if research had poured into these instead of regular solar panels: but as it is,

  • the future probably isn't quite this bright.

These are the solar power towers of southern Spain.

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The Solar Power Towers of Southern Spain

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    林宜悉 posted on 2020/04/01
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