In May this year Spain reached a landmark day when it was powered 100% by renewables – solar, wind and hydroelectric power – from ten o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock in the evening. In four years the share of renewable energy generation rose from 37% to 50%, while non-renewables dropped from 62% to 49%. Its draft Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition targets 35% of renewable energy in final consumption by 2030 and 100% in the generation of the national electricity system by 2050. Claudia Alemañy Castilla, writing for the European Science Communication Institute (ESCI), looks at projects (both funded by EU Horizon 2020) that intend to take Spain to the next stage through managing supply and demand: smart and flexible solutions will optimise efficiency, making sure every clean megawatt achieves more. ReDream gives consumers more control over their usage, while ebalance-plus increases the energy flexibility of electricity distribution grids. Castilla quotes innovators who emphasise that a nation’s transition, spanning decades, will also need continuous protection of the environment, citizen participation, public education and more to ensure it is sustainable both technologically and politically.
On May 16, 2023, Spain supplied the entire peninsula with electricity generated from renewable energy sources. The continental part of the country was powered by solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric power from ten o’clock in the morning until seven o’clock in the evening.
Although it only lasted nine hours, it demonstrated that a transition to renewable energies is possible. Efforts that have led the country to this transition take time, money and implies implementing legal mechanisms and incentives efficiently.
This process is backed by the government’s draft Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition. The plan aims to reach 35% of renewable energy in final consumption by 2030 and 100% in the generation of the national electricity system by 2050. It also foresees reaching 70% of electricity generation with renewable sources by 2030.
But what are the keys behind the Spanish project?
The necessary transition
According to Lilia Granell García, CEO of CERCAN (Consultora Energías Renovables Canarias) and professor at the University of Cologne, in the last five years the Spanish model has changed as a “matter of necessity, imposed by Europe and because the economic model was asking for it“.
In this regard, an article by the environmental economist and essayist Antxon Olabe Legaña, advisor to the Ministry for Ecological Transition (2018-2020), says that the European Union has positioned itself at the forefront of the energy transition for reasons of climate, competitiveness and security. In short, taking care of the planet, saving money and not depending on external nations in an area as important as energy.
The progress of the Spanish process towards cleaner energy has clear indicators in the statistics. While in 2015 the megawatts generated by burning coal, for example, were more than 10,000 by 2022 the power generated by this source was only 3,464 megawatts.
Spain at the forefront
As early as the end of 2021, the European Union recognised Spain’s leadership in the energy transition plan. At that time, compliance with the first 52 milestones related to the ‘NextGenerationEU’ paradigm shift was confirmed. In this way, Spain was the first country in the European Union to receive a favourable preliminary assessment.
In June 2023 alone, the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) launched the first call for grants for new business model projects for energy transformation. About €156 million were earmarked for this.
There are several success stories in Spain regarding its energy future. In this context, there are a number of projects that are actively contributing to achieving the objectives of change. In particular, ReDream and ebalance-plus stand out.
ReDream is a European research initiative that “enables consumers to meaningfully and sustainably influence energy use,” according to its own slogan. At the moment, the project is present in four countries and has some 744 users. Spain is among the nations that have joined ReDream, which involves the participation of numerous scientists and community members.
One of them is the consultancy olivoENERGY. Its core work is to provide detailed advice to other companies on current and future energy regulations to arrive at a correct and efficient implementation.
According to its CEO Alicia Carrasco, the consultancy’s main contributions and services are defining the strategy and business model, market entry, regulatory analysis, and dissemination of every facet of the energy sector. This is achieved through training workshops and seminars, tailored to the specific needs of each client.
To this end, they work with “industry players who seek to identify certainties in upcoming innovation,” she says. They have also collaborated with the University of Málaga, the University of Córdoba and the National Hydrogen Centre.
At olivoENERGY they aspire to be pioneers from Málaga in the digitisation of the energy transition. For Spain, Carrasco assures that there is room and need for more holistic planning, “that includes a roadmap that identifies the complementarity of the measures.”
She also believes that “the growth of renewable energy needs optimisation with manageable consumption to accompany the valleys of renewable production, electrical and thermal storage and electricity grids whose capacity utilisation is more optimal and can operate the grid more flexibly”.
The ebalance-plus project aims to increase the energy flexibility of electricity distribution grids. To this end, it uses a management platform that integrates distributed generation facilities, energy storage, reversible electric vehicle charging points (V2G), and building energy management systems, among others.
Related to ebalance-plus, the Spanish company Ampere Energy, a partner in the project, is building energy storage solutions in community electricity grids. Its aims include harnessing photovoltaic potential to generate electricity and making sustainable energy sharing between people in the community.
The company has stated that its success in the nation is related to operating at the right time. “We came from a time when all the energy traders were offering variable tariffs; depending on the time of day, you have different tariffs. Now, after COVID and the Ukraine invasion, people say they don’t care if they have to pay more, they just want a fixed price to avoid the stress of not knowing if they will be able to pay their next energy bill,” say Ampere sources.
According to project members, people are acting differently, and the idea of using batteries alongside solar installations is now much more attractive to people investing in the future.
Preserving the environment
Not everything about the Spanish energy transition is idyllic. There are some concerns, such as those expressed by the Alianza Energía y Territorio (Aliente).
According to the organisation, some centralisation practices and the massive installation of equipment undermine the biodiversity of the chosen areas. They also suggest administrations avoid rushing or under-planning, as this can cause “territories rich in biodiversity, arable land and sustainable productive sectors” to be “swept away.”
However, it is not the same everywhere. A key example is the mega-photovoltaic power plant installed in Tayuela in the Cáceres region. From the sky, its distribution looks uneven, but the reason is that spaces were left unoccupied to maintain the centuries-old lagoons and holm oaks on the site.
On the other hand, there are differences between electricity generation on the mainland and in other parts of Spain such as the Balearic and Canary Islands. In the archipelagos, power generation is still more dependent on fossil fuels. Even so, CERCAN CEO Lilia Granell García calls for taking advantage of the characteristics of the islands to move towards a sustainable model.
“I think we are making this energy transition very well. The population has seen the need to be not only managers of their own energy, but also producers,” she stresses.
A sustainable transition
Olivo Energy CEO Alicia Carrasco is very clear about the outlook for Spain’s other future energy sustainability challenges.
For her social acceptance, citizen participation, stable regulations, adequate financing, social and territorial equity, public education and international relations management are critical factors that need to be effectively addressed to achieve a successful and sustainable energy transition in the country.
“Energy transformation processes have the potential to profoundly impact people’s daily lives, driving changes in electricity tariffs, mobility, energy efficiency and environmental awareness. In the long term, significant decarbonisation, further electrification of key sectors, technological innovations and greater regional and global energy integration are expected,” says Carrasco.
The energy transition landscape in Spain points to a future of collaboration between government, business and communities. Precise planning and dialogue will ensure that what happened on May 16th 2023 is not the miracle, but the norm.
Claudia Alemañy Castilla writes for the European Science Communication Institute (ESCI)