Spain’s green energy problem: Too many proposals, too little time

The government is calling on developers to withdraw ‘contentious’ plans that are unlikely to be approved in order to ease the backlog that is affecting the authorization of new projects

Parts of a wind turbine are transported in the Spanish region of Asturias.
Parts of a wind turbine are transported in the Spanish region of Asturias.CAPITAL ENERGY (Europa Press)

Spain is receiving too many requests to build wind farms and solar parks. This flood of proposals is creating a backlog that is slowing down the process to approve new green energy projects. To address the problem, the Spanish government – led by a leftist coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos – is calling for the proposals least likely to pass an environmental evaluation to be withdrawn.

Spain is aiming to provide 60,000 MW of renewable energy by 2030. However, the combined current proposals would connect the country to a network of 150,000 MW, mostly from wind and solar energy. This avalanche of applications not only greatly exceeds Spain’s energy needs, but it is also creating an enormous administrative backlog that is making it difficult to carry out environmental assessments and lengthening processing times. As a result, perfectly viable projects are at risk of not being approved by the set deadlines.

At the end of 2021, the Spanish government approved a royal decree to adopt urgent measures to promote electric vehicles and renewable energy. To compensate for the backlog, the legislation extended the deadlines for different steps of the process, in particular the environmental assessment stage, which has been hardest hit by the bottleneck. Paradoxically, despite being overwhelmed, authorities must evaluate each proposal in order of arrival, even if it is clear that a project is unlikely to be approved.

“Given that there are many more projects than what is needed, and that there are some in more environmentally sensitive areas, I am often asked why we don’t directly filter out [the least promising projects],” says Ismael Aznar, the head of Quality and Environmental Assessment at Spain’s Ecological Transition Ministry. But this is not possible, he says. “The administration cannot just rule out projects because it wants to – it has to explain the reasons. This means it must follow a process and have a complete record: it has to analyze the project, the environmental impact study and even the public information that comes via open consultation processes.”

This process takes time and is especially complicated when proposals for wind farms and solar parks are linked to long electricity lines, which also have to be analyzed. One project, for example, wants to bring renewable energy from the Aragón region to Barcelona, a journey of more than 150 kilometers across half of Catalonia.

The high volume of requests means there is a very high workload, which the relevant authorities are not properly equipped for
Ismael Aznar, head of Environmental Assessment at Spain’s Ecological Transition Ministry

The impact of such projects due to their use of power lines, which are typically excessively long, is the most common reason used by the ministry to reject a proposal. This is done on the grounds that it has failed the environmental evaluation assessment. Other reasons for a negative assessment are the direct impact the project will have on areas of high environmental sensitivity for birdlife or on those that are under protection. For example, the proposed solar park in Otero (505 MW) in Segovia and the wind farm in Biota (58.7 MW) in Zaragoza were recently rejected for environmental reasons.

In some cases, the government can directly decide not to admit a project for review if it is unviable from the environmental perspective. Nevertheless, even in these exceptional situations, before this can happen, an analysis of the request and the reports from different environmental bodies must be carried out.

Aznar explains: “At first, many requests were presented, it was a very quick process and perhaps now the developers themselves have better knowledge of the circumstances surrounding a project, the environmental constraints and the difficulties it may have in moving forward.”

Under the 2021 royal decree, if developers withdraw their project before January 23, they will receive back the investment required to begin the process: €40,000 per megawatt (MW). If a project is rejected during the standard review process, they will not get back this financial guarantee (unless it was denied for external reasons). “Recovering the guarantee is an incentive for the most contentious projects to be withdrawn,” says Aznar.

The Ecological Transition Ministry is currently processing 697 renewable energy projects: 467 solar parks, 211 wind farms, two hydro-electric proposals and 17 hybrid plants. Together, they would produce 66,000 MW. Of this figure, 19,700 MW worth of projects are in the environmental assessment stage. This number, however, represents just the largest projects that are under review. Small renewable energy proposals, with less than 50 MW capacity, are processed by Spain’s regional authorities – not the central government.

“The high volume of requests means there is a very high workload, which the relevant authorities, at all levels [water management authorities, regional agencies, national government], are not properly equipped for,” says Aznar. According to this expert, authorities must also take into account the “synergetic impacts” of proposals that are located in the same area due to, for example, their proximity to connection points in the electricity grid. In other words, the review is not just considering the impact of “an isolated project, but rather of various ones in the same area.”

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