Even if the wind stops blowing in the next three weeks, wind power will end the year as the leading source of electricity in Spain. This will mean wind overtaking nuclear in the national energy matrix for the first time since 2013, the only year since records began in which wind turbines were the main source of power. That year was particularly good in terms of wind resources while nuclear was affected by the closure of the Garoña plant in Burgos. Since then, however, wind power has continued to grow as a percentage of total energy generated both in absolute and relative terms, a trend that looks to continue in the near future.
The milestone, advanced by Spanish news site Nius, is just a taste of things to come. “Wind power is going to dominate the Spanish electricity grid for a long time,” says Francisco Valverde, a consultant at the energy company Menta Energía.
According to the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), released by the Spanish government last year, the installed capacity of wind turbines will almost double between now and 2030. During this period, the rate of growth of solar photovoltaic will be even greater as installed capacity more than quadruples, making it the second most important electricity source, though it will still lag far behind wind power, even when solar thermal is taken into account. Meanwhile, installed nuclear power will fall to less than half its current level. And both combined-cycle plants, which use natural gas, and hydroelectricity will maintain their weight in a mix in which coal will no longer be included.
As natural gas prices soar to four times as much as last January and the cost of releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) under the European Union’s emissions trading scheme skyrockets, 2021 has become the most expensive year for energy in history. This has made wind power more relevant than ever. The equation is clear: the more wind turbines and solar panels contribute to the grid, the lower the cost for consumers and companies buying their power from the regulated market, also known as PVPC. This became clear last summer when, to compensate for the lack of wind, combined-cycle plants had to increase their activity, pushing prices upwards. Under the current system, the price of electricity is set by the last megawatt-hour that enters the market on any given day, which in the last year has for long periods been produced by combined-cycle plants.
The increase in wind and solar photovoltaic generation so far in 2021 will bring the sum contribution of all renewables close to half of total generation: together they will contribute around 47%, according to the latest update from the national power grid, Red Eléctrica de España (REE), consulted by EL PAÍS. This is despite the fact that hydroelectric generation has been reduced by the lower availability of water in a number of dams. To put the data in perspective, a decade ago renewables contributed to less than a third of the electricity consumed in Spain.
Given the recent developments and the avalanche of investment in green energies, experts say renewables should overtake other sources in just a few years. How many exactly? “That will depend, to a large extent, on what will be entering the new energy auctions [for wind and solar] and the hydraulic contribution, which changes everything,” says Pedro Linares, a professor at the Pontificia Comillas University, who specializes in energy issues.
According to Valverde, “right now, it’s renewables that make money.” Despite the recent resurgence of nuclear power in the public debate, nuclear is only viable if accompanied by “significant subsidies,” he says. “Sometimes it seems people are confused, but Spain has it all: we have more wind and more sun than practically any other European country.”
Natalia Fabra, professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, adds: “One thing is clear: renewable technologies will grow while the rest will not.” Her impression, in fact, is that the green energy targets set by the PNIEC will be met well before 2030. “Technological evolution will help: the cost of investing in renewables and in batteries to store surpluses are not going to stop falling, and that is going to speed up the process,” she says.
According to Fabra, the major threat to meeting the targets lies in the social acceptance of these technologies, with growing protest movements in some areas of Spain against the installation of wind turbines and photovoltaic panels. She explains: “It is going to depend a lot on the policies that are put in place and on whether the projects contribute more to local public coffers and citizens notice a positive change.”