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Spain: Wind power provides a boost for natural gas industry

A STORMY autumn meant more record-breaking for Spanish wind-power generators. Wind turbines met more than half of the country's electricity demand for the first time on one breezy Sunday morning in November – and that turns out to be good news not just for the wind sector, but also for the gas industry.

Wind farms produced 53% of the country's electricity requirements on 8 November, generating 11.5 gigawatts (GW) at their peak, almost two-thirds of the 17 GW total capacity of the Spanish wind sector. That beat a record of 44% set less than a week earlier.

The extra wind power meant Spain had more electricity than it needed over that weekend and was able to export some of it, as well as using it to pump water back to the top of hydro-electric dams to be stored again for reuse.

Such surges do not reflect the average output of the Spanish wind sector, which contributed 11% of the country's electricity in 2008, and it is also much easier to cater for a larger proportion of overall power consumption on a Sunday, when less power is used than during the rest of the week. But it does indicate the increasingly important role of wind power for the country – and that role is set to grow.

In mid-November, following months of procrastination, the government facilitated the next phase in the wind sector's expansion, approving 6 GW of new wind projects to be built between 2010 and 2012 (as well as 2.4 GW of new solar-thermal energy projects to be built between 2010 and 2013). Spain will need to have 29 GW of wind capacity installed by 2016, if an EU target of obtaining 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 is to be met, the government says.

Perhaps surprisingly, the growing importance of wind power also provides a boost for the gas-fired power sector. While wind power may generate several gigawatts of power one day, it may produce next to nothing the next if weather conditions change. This means that, to be effective, it must be combined with a more dependable power source that can be ramped up at short notice.

The availability of imported electricity can help, but if, as in Spain, international grid connections are limited, gas is regarded as the best option. Combined-cycle gas turbines can be up and running from a cold start in less than six hours, whereas alternatives such as nuclear or coal take much longer, says Juan Pons, managing director of strategy at Enagas, Spain's gas-grid operator.

To keep pace with the growth in wind power, the government estimates Spain, which is already the world's third-largest importer of liquefied natural gas, will need to increase its gas-fired generating capacity to 33 GW by 2016, up from 22 GW.

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