JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
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MONTAGNE: And that music you're hearing means we're about to talk about climate change. NPR and National Geographic are taking a year to explore climate issues around the world.
This month we're in Europe exploring energy sources that don't emit greenhouse gases.
Today, Jerome Socolovsky reports from Spain, where a company has started producing household electricity from a solar power plant near Seville. The technology is called concentrated solar thermal energy, which means it uses heat from the sun to run steam turbine generators.
JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: It's noontime on the dusty plain outside Seville and not a cloud is in the sky. But in the distance there's a glow from what looks like an upside-down funnel of light beams converging on a sleek white tower. Those light beams come from giant mirrors on the ground reflecting the sun's rays. It's the world's first solar thermal power plant and it's called PS-10.
Mr. VALERIO FERNANDEZ (Engineer): PS-10 is an 11-megawatt electric power plant and will be providing electricity for a population of about 6,000 houses.
SOCOLOVSKY: Valerio Fernandez is the engineer in charge of the plant built by Spanish renewable energy company Abengoa. It's been operational since last March and is still being expanded.
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SOCOLOVSKY: A bulldozer is clearing the ground for more banks of mirrors and solar towers that will bring the plant's output up to 300 megawatts.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: When all the solar platform of Abengoa in Sanlucar la Mayor will be erected by the year 2013, with 300 megawatts, we will be supplying electricity to about 180,000 houses. That is about the population of a big city as Seville.
SOCOLOVSKY: Fernandez opens the door to the chamber housing the noisy turbines at the base of the tower. Up on an observation platform, he looks out over a vast plain that could easily be a prairie in the southwest United States. But instead of cornfields there are shimmering fields of heliostatic mirrors - mirrors that automatically follow the sun.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: This is one of the most beautiful views in the plant. We are 30 meters high in this platform that is in the middle of the tower, and you can see the whole heliostat field.
SOCOLOVSKY: I'm standing under one of these giant mirror panels. There are 624 of them reflecting sunlight up to the tower. You can actually see the light beams focusing on a point. And at that focal point there are flashes and little puffs of smoke. Those are specks of drifting dust being vaporized.
The solar energy concentrated at the top could easily melt metal, Fernandez says. But water pumped through them stops them from melting. That water eventually turns to steam and powers the turbines at the base.
Seville gets up to 300 days of sunshine per year. Fernandez has a vision of solar towers dotting the landscape across southern Spain and even into North Africa, generating power for rainy northern Europe. His company is already setting up plants in Morocco and Algeria and is in discussions to build more in California, Nevada and New Mexico.
When the Seville plant is finished, it will have cost more than one and a half billion dollars to build. It's only economically viable because of generous subsidies from the Spanish government and the European Union. But Fernandez says the technology is already getting cheaper.
At Seville's train station, passengers waiting for the train to Granada say they're glad the project has been built in southern Spain.
Almudena Molina thinks solar energy should be subsidized even more.
Ms. ALMUDENA MOLINA (Passenger): (Spanish spoken)
SOCOLOVSKY: There's so much sun down here, she says, that you might as well put it to good use.
Her father, Antonio Molina, says projects like the solar tower should be built now, before global warming gets worse.
For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Seville.
MONTAGNE: Go to npr.org/climateconnections for more stories on climate change and how it's effecting people around the world.