From Rise to ruin, rising again.

Unlimited sunlight dazzles the eye, blurring the line of the horizon. The silhouettes of chimneys and their smoke hats tremble the waves of heat. In this high valley of Spain’s Autonomous Community of Castilla La Mancha, the town of Puertollano has long stimulated the imagination and continues to attract visionaries. It was here that Don Quixote (in spite of his faithful Sancho Panza) tilted at windmills. Indeed, there is some- thing strange about this place. First, its name: from “puerto” and “llano,” although this town has no port and is not in the middle of a plain but set in rather mountainous terrain. It’s not for nothing that Puertollano is also called “City of Two Lies.”

It is a small town in a region that was for centuries a no man’s land—located between Christian Spain in the north and the Moorish caliphate in the south. After the Reconquista, it was settled by people from the north at the encouragement of the Spanish crown, only to be devastated 100 years later by the Black Death that left only 13 survivors. How did Puertollano survive to become a center of coal mining and petrochemicals, then endure through the collapse of those industries to emerge, less than a decade, as an internationally recognized technology hub for renewable energy and, as of this year, home of the largest photovoltaic plant in the world? Paradox, indeed.

Amid the weeds, stand the once-proud brick chimneys where storks now nest. At the foot of the imposing conical mass of the largest piles of tailings are imposing redbrick buildings, pierced by high openings in their alcoves, that made up the Peñarroya thermal power plant and electric power station. Now under renovation, these buildings will soon house the city’s Congress Center.

The Puertollano landscape is also the story of petrochemicals. The strange silhouette of the Puertollano plants can be spotted from afar, lit by the flames that escape from their flares and the smoke veils that rise to merge with the occasionally accumulating black clouds. The other mill on the horizon is the Elcogas Thermal Power Station, whose permanent feature since 1996 is the emission of a column of steam resulting from coal gasification. Gone is the image of coal heaps, reminding us that though the new alternatives are not renewable energy, they are still clean energy.

Puertollano’s story really began in 1873, with the opening of the first coal mines. The size of the deposits attracted investors, mostly French. They established new mining companies, including the Peñarroya Mining and Metallurgical Company, a name that marked the memory of the mine. An industrial complex and its profusion of chimneys made its permanent appearance in the landscape of Puertollano. A railroad, a veritable groove in the heart of the city, was built to transport the coal; in turn, it also brought new immigrants to the mines. Some of these immigrants were French, sent by their company, and established in the French Colony district, but there were also Portuguese and Italian immigrants. Gradually, the worker presence grew and contributed to a population boom. Until 1975, the mining process had been largely housed underground, employing up to 2,000 Penarroya miners. The influx of a new labor force encouraged the Spanish company Encasur to introduce open pit mining at its new Emma Mine a huge black crater several hundred meters in diameter in the middle of the plain. In 1953, the petrochemical industry came to town. The business—albeit a latecomer—was booming and employed 6,000 people. It proved so dominant, in fact, that its resulting “monoculture” eventually became worrisome. Times changed again and, in 1992, the mine trains were replaced by the Spanish high-speed train, the Alta Velocidad Espanol (AVE), a long, white snake that silently connects Madrid to Seville and puts Puertollano less than an hour from the capital.

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(Photos © Pascal Dolémieux)