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The City that Worships the Sun

I have cycled into the future. That is how I feel as I brake at the summit and look down into the valley near the small town of Sanlúcar la Mayor, just over twenty kilometres west of Sevilla.

The valley sparkles with reflected light as if it was a giant bowl of crushed glass. Everywhere there are heliostats, moveable parabolic mirrors which track the sun and send its rays into a tower where they are converted into electricity

The feeling of leaving behind one world and entering another is reinforced as it was Sevilla that I had cycled from a little over an hour before. Sevilla, with one of the most beautiful city centres: Crooked medieval houses, tiled courtyards, small squares, resplendent flowing fountains, bountiful orange trees, coarse earth-coloured palaces which have been the sets for historical films - most recently the Game of Thrones - and kilometres of archways and porches offering cool respite. Sevilla, Europe’s warmest city, was built to shade its inhabitants.

Yesterday, as I stepped off the fast train, which had sped me at a rate of 300 kilometres an hour through the parch dry landscape with its olive groves and grazing goats, I had glanced at my phone: It was 31 degrees in the shade, while in Sicily it was 21 degrees and in Athens 13 degrees.

I freewheel down the slope and enter a time warp. A terrain sparsely dotted with cork oaks with slender pigs rootling around for anything edible which may have fallen from the trees. A land and scene unchanged in a thousand years.

Then I am jolted into the future. I park my bike and look at the rays crossing the sky. Bright beams between the mirrors on the ground and the top part of the tall towers. Yellow rays, thousands of rays, which, as they meet just in front of the towers, change colour, become brighter, indicating the sharp increase in heat.

"The goal," says Ana Cabañas, who shows me around the PS10 facility, "is to soon supply the whole of Sevilla with electricity.”

"Uhum," I answer absentmindedly, as I am rather distracted - indeed, overwhelmed and dazed - as I walk around this huge display of next-generation energy.

So, soon, Spain's fourth largest city, with 700,000 inhabitants, will receive its daily electricity from the sun. With the emphasis on “daily”. How to store the energy from the days’ sun rays so it can be utilised at night time is a problem yet to be solved.

"Right now we are testing some quite new methods of storing the heat in the form of steam or heated ground salt. However at the moment our trials are not working very well”.

"Are you far from your goal?”

“Well the PS10’s 624 solar trackers deliver 10 megawatts. Together all the plants provide 180 megawatts. That’s on a perfect day. That represents about 60 percent of the total need”.

“Is today a perfect day?”

"Almost. The temperature is not really a consideration; what matters is that the sun shines - and that it is certainly doing today! But it's not perfect. Do you see the rays from the sun trackers?”

"Sure," I say, squinting as I follow the rays up to one of the towers.

"On a perfect day you wouldn’t be able to see them. The rays are visible because moisture or particles in the air coat the sun’s rays, thus making them visible”.

It is quiet. The wind blows gently. Occasionally there is a slight squeaking sound as all 624 mirror parabolas turn to align themselves toward the sunshine.

These 120 square metre solar trackers concentrate the sunlight to a sphere at the top of the 110 metre high tower. The sphere is filled with water and when the water vaporises it drives a turbine that generates electricity.

No significant progress can be expected - in terms of technological development - with this type of solar energy production.

Some improvements can be made to the mirror: increase the gloss of the metal foil, use thinner glass or change the glass for a special plastic. But nothing much more.

"On the other hand," explains Ana, "the costs of building similar facilities are constantly coming down. PS10 took two years to build. The twice as big PS20 took just half a year. That saves  ahuge cost”.

I am squinting up at one of the towers. The tip of the concentrated light does not have the glow of colour but rather it is pure white, like the point of a welding flame. As I stand, my skrewed-up eyes are suddenly drawn to a point which blazes for a millisecond and, then, seconds later, delicate white ash falls on us like dry snow.

Let's hope it was a paper bag blown by the breeze. Or maybe it was a bird - if so, it had a quick, painless death.

“Is it normally this hot”, I wonder after we had finished our walk.

"No, it's usually a lot cooler than this year. Maybe 16 degrees or even as low as12 degrees. But now, pheew, I do not know, yesterday it was like Summer, though it is still Spring. Strange”.

But even with today's 28 degrees Ana has put up the hood of her jacket and the woman in the baking-hot guard room is wearing a thick pullover.

Outside the gates a goat herder passes by with his flock. One of the world's oldest and saddestoccupations. Many work colleagues, yes, but they are all goats.

I say thank you and goodbye.

“I once went to Sweden," says Ana, as we part, “to Dalarö in Stockholm’s archipelago - muy fría, muy hermosa.”

Very cold, very beautiful - yeah, that probably sums up the part of the world I live in, I reflect as I brush off some sort of desert sand which has coated my bicycle saddle.

Ana leaves me and I cast a final look at the plant. A big cloud has just passed and the sun trackers now realise that they are all pointing slightly in the wrong direction and immediately start to turn in unison towards the sun.

Short, buzzing bleeps can be heard from thousands of electric motors as order in the ranks is re-established. It is a fascinating sight but also a little spooky. A mixture of a North Korean military parade and a pagan ritual at Stonehenge. A metal and glass army with thousands of mirror faces following a golden celestial body in the daily worship of its sun.

As I cycle back to Sevilla, I think about how much has happened over the past ten years since I was here last and how wrong we had it then.

Then, large-scale production of electricity from the sun cost three times as much as electricity generated by oil and coal. Nobody believed there was a future for solar energy if production was not subsidised. Today, large-scale, sustainable electricity from the sun is cheaper to produce than fuel from fossil sources.

Then, the sceptics said that it was not worth investing in sustainable electricity because "China opens a new coal power plant every day". Today, China is the world's leader in solar energy, which is one of the reasons why global carbon dioxide emissions are not on the increase.

Then, the market was for small photovoltaic installations for the environmentally conscious middle class in the western world. Today, Bangladesh is the world leader, having roof-mounted solar cells on four million homes.

One can hope that the development of solar energy will be as positive over the next ten years as it has been during the last ten.

Solar energy has a future because it is sustainable in a variety of ways. It is renewable, it is quiet, it is democratic because it shines on all - indeed, more on the poor than on the rich - and it is  impossible to fight over as it is in such abundance. The solar energy that hits the earth's surface in one hour is enough to meet the whole world's energy needs for one year. And it will never end (here, for a moment, ignore the prediction that the sun will probably die out in about 175 million years).

There are two main ways to capture sun’s energy.

The simpler method - the PS10 is a large-scale example of this - is when the sun heats a liquid that is either used directly for hot water, for example, or converted into electricity in a turbine. For example, a ten-square metre solar collector meets a normal household’s demand for hot water.

The more advanced method is the solar cell, which directly converts the energy of the incoming solar beams into electricity.

Both methods work well in large-scale and small-scale plants. Small scale solar “power plants” on roofs are particularly suitable for home use. They do not take any extra space. No new land needed. No new cables to be laid. Any surplus electricity can be sold to an electricity company for it to redistribute. Because the outside temperature is not a factor, even regions such as Scandinavia - with its long, bright summer nights - may be able to process as much solar energy as some regions further to the south. For example, Stockholm has over 250 hours of sunshine more than Zurich each year. And there are roofs everywhere...

If it had felt like cycling straight into the future as I had approached the solar power plant outside of Sanlúcar la Mayor. Now, as I rounded a corner in Sevilla’s old city centre, I caught sight of the Metropol Parasol: It was as if the future had landed on a square in an ancient city after a journey from a distant galaxy.

Although the official name of the building is the Metropol Parasol, it is popularly referred to as the Mushroom, the Cloud or the Waffle. No particularly futuristic feel to those names. Sure, the governors of Sevilla gave a hint of the envisaged future when they announced an architectural competition in 2004 to renew the Plaza de la Encarnación, formerly site of an old market hall and latterly parking space and an unoccupied lot. At that time in Andalusia, as in the rest of the country, the belief was that the coming decade would be as flourishing as the previous one.

Then came the global economic crisis in 2008. Nobody in Spain thought that this financial crisis would hit Spain extra hard. It seemed as unlikely as if the characters of Game of Thrones were to become real and occupy the town hall.

The competition was won by the Berlin-based architect Jürgen Mayer H. At the time Mayer was a rising star, also famed as an artist and for designing fashion shows for, among others, Calvin Klein.

Mayer had also expressed an interest in the digital world and this, we can perceive, is reflected in Parasol. Partly because it seems that the Parasol’s complex design could only have been drawn so precisely by a computer and partly because of its non-repetitive form, in which no two parts of Parasol are identical, is akin to the thoughts of a perpetual digital algorithm rather than a creation that emerged from a pen and drawing board.

However, Mayer has very firm views about the function of the Parasol: It is to be for everyone - as democratic as the sun. This was not going to be another iconic building to house fine art. Mayer stated himself that he wanted to fashion a modern people’s cathedral without walls and locked gates. Everyone should feel attracted to the building - feel that it is not exclusive - and feel welcome, day or night (some sections of the Parasol are open 24 hours a day).

Thus the Parasol also contains something for everyone. In the basement there are the ruins of a Roman street and on the roof a skybar and a winding, gently undulating walkway from which there are spectacular views over the rooftops; on the levels in between are the restaurants, a market hall, shops, a playground, a stage for concerts, a space for skateboarders to slam around and for youngsters to hang out. The past, the present and the future together in one and the same place.

The future is also represented in the choice of material: Wood. A product that is scarce in this part of Andalusia. That Sevilla is Europe's hottest city is largely due to its geographical location, but a further contributing factor is the absence of cooling vegetation in the surrounding area.

Wooden houses also belong to the future. The advantages of building in wood are many and important. Wood is inexpensive, durable, attractive, easy to shape, actually quite fireproof and survives a long time. The Norwegian Stake Church in Heddal dates back to 1250, which tells us something about wood's resistance qualities long before modern wood preservatives were introduced.

However, the most important factor as far as the climate and environment is concerned is that much less energy is needed to build a wooden house than a concrete house. A wooden house serves as a carbon sink as it binds carbon dioxide for as long as the structure exists. In contrast a cement factory releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases. A medium size European cement plant generates nearly two million tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is comparable to the carbon dioxide emissions of 250,000 trans Atlantic flights.

When the Metropol Parasol was built, it was the world's largest wooden construction. It is no longer so. But it can still take pride and honour for pointing out the direction. The direction towards the future. Without the Parasol perhaps we would not have had Treet, the fifty metre tall block of flats fashioned from wood, constructed in Bergen, Norway, or the 154 metre high wooden TianningTemple in Changzhou, China.

Furthermore, one can consider wood as an unusual, sustainable way of storing solar energy.

Text & Photo Johan Tell