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Spain’s renewable energy conundrum

Spain will continue to rely on coal to back up its huge renewable energy programme, although linking the country’s electricity grid to France will also help, the Spanish government said

Spain’s wind-power capacity has nearly doubled since 2006 to 20.1 gigawatts (GW), according to grid operator Red Eléctrica. Electricity production from wind increased by the same ratio, to 43.4 terrawatt hours (TWh), while output from coal-fired power plants has dropped by over two-thirds to 20.9 TWh.

“Of course renewables are good, but we need back-up technology and the only back up technology that is Spanish, or European in this case, is coal. So we cannot say goodbye to coal indefinitely,” said Spain’s minister of industry, tourism, and trade, Miguel Sebastian, on the sidelines of the International Energy Agency ministerial meeting in Paris.

“In Spain, there are some hours in the day that we have 75% of our electricity from renewable energy, but it can go from that to zero very rapidly” (PE 1/10 p31)

Renewables account for over a quarter of Spain’s installed generating capacity of 99 GW and a third of the 273.4 TWh of electricity generated in 2010, according to Red Eléctrica data.

The country has the second-largest wind capacity in Europe, after Germany, and has one of the most advanced renewable-energy programmes on the continent – with subsidies for green technologies including solar and wind turbines. But adding too much wind has caused grid-balancing problems on windy days, with conventional power stations forced to shut to avoid overloading the system.

Coal subsidies

Spain also subsidises domestic coal production and subsidies could possibly double over the next four years, costing billions of euros. Subsidies were initiated by prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero under an EU directive to prioritise consumption of indigenous fuel for security of supply reasons. More likely they were introduced to prop up the declining domestic coal mining industry – Zapatero is from the mining region of Castilla y Leon.

But his beleaguered Socialist Party is expected to lose the upcoming elections on 20 November to the People’s Party, which could signal a change in energy policy.

Offsetting the country’s good work on renewables, the decision to subsidise coal led to a 20% jump in carbon emissions in the January to August period to 60 million tonnes, says Spanish utility Iberdrola.

Along with the opening of the 8 billion cubic metres a year (cm/y) Algeria-Spain Medgaz pipeline in March (PE 11/10 p9), subsidised coal has also seen liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports drop. Gas send outs from Spanish LNG terminals have fallen to around 17 billion cm this year to date, compared with nearly 20 billion cm in the same period last year, according to Pan EurAsian, a consultancy.

Balance the influx

But the planned electricity interconnector between Spain and France should also help balance the influx of wind power onto the grid, Sebastian said – and eventually reduce the need for back-up coal-fired generation. A new link, expected to start up in 2014, is set to double exchange capacity between Spain and the rest of Europe to 2.8 GW.

“Without interconnection, we must have back-up technology, which is very expensive. Interconnection makes renewables cheaper. We need more interconnection, not just between the two countries (Spain and France), but across the rest of Europe,” Sebastian said.

The power link is expected to cost €700 million ($968 million), funded partly by a €350 million loan from the European Investment Bank and €225 million EU grant. The new link could mean Spain receives power from France’s steady nuclear fleet during times of low wind, sending electricity the other way when it has too much.

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