In Spain, a Solar-Powered Cemetery

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Manu Fernandez / AP

The Santa Coloma de Gramenet cemetery, outside Barcelona, Spain

Three of Santiago Pérez's relatives lie in the cemetery of Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a city just outside Barcelona. Nonbeliever that he is, Pérez doesn't visit their graves often. But he was recently there for a funeral and found himself impressed with the latest addition: a glittering expanse of solar panels that now runs along the top of the grave walls into which Spaniards bury coffins and urns alike. "If you're one of those people who thinks all cemeteries should look like castles, draped in shadows, then maybe you won't like this one," the 46-year-old pet shop owner admits. "But I think it looks modern."

Modern it certainly is. Santa Coloma is the first city in Spain to convert its municipal burial place into what is essentially a power plant. The installation consists of 462 solar panels spread over roughly 10,700 sq. ft. (1000 sq. m.), and has a capacity of 100 kilowatts, enough to meet the energy needs of 60 families. (See pictures from Spain's madcap tomato festival.)

The idea came from Esteve Serret, director of Conste, a company that manages Santa Coloma's cemetery. Serret had long been interested in renewable energy, and one day, as he worked with his father in the graveyard, he realized they were standing in a potent site for it. "To produce solar energy you need a wide open space," Serret says. "and in Santa Coloma, the biggest open space is the cemetery." Indeed, the city's 124,000 inhabitants are squeezed into a bare 1.54 sq. miles (4 sq. km.) of space — and much of that land is mountainous.

Serret had only to convince the cemetery's owners: the municipal government. That turned out to be easy, especially because the $935,000 it would cost to install the panels would come from Conste and Endesa, a major power company. "Why not? we thought," says Begoña Bellete, councilwoman for environmental affairs. "A city like ours has to commit itself to being on the frontlines of the fight against climate change. And this was a great opportunity because the financing would be private. All we had to do was provide the space."

That space, of course, isn't normally used for multi-tasking. But in an effort to protect delicate sensibilities, the city made sure to disturb the cemetery as little as possible. Although the panels would produce more energy if they pointed directly south, that orientation would have required adding a structure to the graveyard, and so the city decided against it. Perhaps as a result, Santa Coloma's citizens posed little resistance to the project. Says Serret: "Even the priest of the city's biggest church is collaborating with us." Santiago Pérez likewise says he hasn't heard any complaints from his neighbors. "Why would anyone care if you're producing a little light at the cemetery?" he asks. "They bring candles there, don't they?"

The people of Santa Coloma may even be setting a trend. With 8,000 cities in Spain, each with its own cemetery, the potential energy generated could reach 800,000 kilowatts and according to councilwoman Bellete, the city is already getting inquiries from other municipalities, including neighboring Barcelona. "People always say that the global begins with the local, and this has helped us see ourselves as setting a precedent for doing that," says Bellete. "In a city like this one, which is working-class, has a high immigrant population, and plenty of problems, it's nice to be a reference for something positive."

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