Companies are already eyeing the area's "Club Med" countries where similar feed-in tariffs exist, such as France, Greece and Italy; swathes of sunny Latin America are a possibility; and the U.S. is the ultimate objective as the world's largest electricity market with abundant potential in its sun-soaked Southwest. Healthy tax credits for solar energy in the U.S., extended for eight years in October are also a draw. Abengoa is already building the world's largest solar plant, 280-MW Solana, in Arizona.
"We've been in Spain since 1999 where 80 percent of our revenues originate because its south has double Germany's sunshine and attractive feed-in tariffs," says Henner Gladen, chief technology officer at solar-thermal firm Solar Millennium. That share should fall as the company's new U.S. projects gain ground. "And China, Australia, the Middle East and Africa are the markets of tomorrow."
Spain is already charging into North Africa, which is bathed in 40 percent more sunlight. With World Bank backing, Abengoa is breaking ground on the first hybrid solar-thermal and natural gas burning power plants in Morocco and Algeria, online by 2010. "With abundant radiation and land in its deserts, our neighbor, North Africa, is this region's Southwest," says Michael Geyer, director of international business development at Abengoa, noting that Algeria already has feed-in tariffs. Solar-thermal plants are also planned for Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Libya and the United Arab Emirates.
Most importantly, the initial African power plants and Spain's solar-thermal test bed pave the way for energy export from planned solar farms in the Sahara Desert across a high-voltage direct current trans-sea line to Europe, pending political will and public funds. French President Nicolas Sarkozy resurrected the idea this year in a Plan Solaire.
Studies show that harnessing just 0.3 percent of the sunshine on North African and Middle Eastern deserts could power those regions and Europe. Optimists, such as Nikolai Ulrich, head of renewables Europe at Germany's Nordbank, foresee energy export from Africa within seven years. Imminent milestones include talks in Algeria and Tunisia for transmission lines to Italy, planned for next year. Spain has an edge, because it has been swapping electricity with Morocco over their own two-way line for about a dozen years.
And Spain's solar revolution at home may only slow—not stall. Spain has ample sun, legislation that calls for solar on all new buildings, and PVs poised to deliver low-cost electricity. "Spain is a leader in CSP [concentrated solar power] and hybrid solar/natural gas systems," says Paolo Frankl, head of renewable energy at the International Energy Agency. "And in Spain I expect a shift from ground-mounted plants to solar installations in industrial sites, buildings and other infrastructure like highways. Competition helps innovation."