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ENERGY

Spain to build undersea power line in Bay of Biscay to ease energy woes

Spain reached an agreement with France and Portugal Friday to build an undersea power line in the Bay of Biscay as they up electricity links aimed at helping the Iberian peninsula out of its energy isolation.

Spain to build undersea power line in Bay of Biscay to ease energy woes
Aerial view of the Bay of Biscay, with Spain to the south and France to the east. Photo: NASA/AFP

Speaking after a meeting in Lisbon, the three country leaders welcomed a deal signed on the sidelines of the gathering on financing construction of the 370-kilometre (230-mile) long power line linking France to Spain.

It's “a very important step,” said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa.

The European Commission will finance 30 percent of the project by bringing 578 million euros ($675 million) to the table, an unprecedented amount in the European Union for an energy project.

The power line should start operating in 2025, almost doubling the capacity for electricity exchange between France and Spain.

Spain and Portugal have long called for an end to their isolation from European networks of electricity and gas distribution.

Portugal has a surplus of electricity production that it could export further afield than Spain if there were more links with the rest of Europe.

Madrid and Lisbon would also like to be better connected to the European gas market by building a pipeline in Catalonia in Spain's northeast.

That would complement another pipeline that has already been built west of the Pyrenees mountain range, linking Spain to France.

Both countries import gas from Algeria via a pipeline that became operational in 2011.

They also have seven ports that can handle liquified natural gas (LNG), which they import from Qatar and increasingly from the United States as it develops shale gas.

They say better connections would reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas.

But a study commissioned by the European Commission found that the pipeline in Catalonia, which would cost more than 440 million euros, would not be viable given other European countries already have many LNG ports that aren't operating at full capacity.

As such, France has been reticent.

But French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday he was open to moving forward on gas, although he cautioned “we will only build more pipelines if gas consumption in Europe remains significant.”

He said the pipeline in Catalonia would be built if it were shown to be cost effective in a scenario where demand for gas would increase as coal power plants are progressively shut down.

ENERGY

How millions are being left out in the cold by Spain’s soaring energy prices

In her flat on the outskirts of Madrid, Pamela Ponce no longer turns on the heating despite the biting chill coming in through the windows.

How millions are being left out in the cold by Spain's soaring energy prices
Pamela Ponce at her home in Madrid. The 32-year-old says she hasn't been able to pay her electricity bills for the past three months. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

“The prices have gone up a lot, I have no choice,” sighs Ponce, a young Peruvian mother, her voice resigned.

On this bitterly cold January morning, the temperature outside is hovering around five degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit). And inside, it’s barely much warmer.

“It can also be very cold inside, above all when there’s no sun,” she says, walking through the three rooms where she lives with her mother and two children in Leganes.

This 32-year-old says she hasn’t been able to pay her electricity bills for the past three months with prices in Spain soaring by a staggering 72 percent over the last year, one of the highest increases within the European Union.

The hike has been in part driven by Spain’s excessive dependence on gas to produce electricity and the lack of a major power provider like in many other countries to help keep prices in check through reduced tariffs.

“Before I was paying between €35 and €60 a month but now, it’s more than €100, without even mentioning gas which has also gone up,” explains Ponce, who hasn’t worked since catching Covid which left her with severe after-effects, notably affecting her left hand.

“I just don’t know what to do,” says the former cleaning lady who admits she’s reliant upon her ex-partner to pay the rent and buy food.

“I feel like I’m drowning,” she whispers, her voice choked with emotion.

According to Spanish government estimates, around 4.5 million people in Spain are affected by ‘energy poverty’, either because they’re incapable of paying the energy bills to cover their basic needs or because they have to put a large part of their earnings towards them. 

In an attempt to heat the flat, Pamela has bought a heater that runs off a gas bottle which she moves from room to room depending on what they need.

“It’s cheaper,” she says. But everything else is strictly rationed.

“My kids only take a shower every other day (and) I generally cook for 2 or 3 days at a time so I don’t have to turn the cooker on so much,” she explains.

SPAIN-ENERGY-SOCIAL-POVERTY

Electricity prices in Spain soared by a staggering 72 percent over the last year, one of the highest increases within the European Union. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

More and more families affected

And there are countless others like her.

“More and more families are struggling to pay their bills” and “have to chose between paying for food or light at the end of the month,” says Sara Casas, head of environmental issues at the Spanish Red Cross.

Last year, Spain’s left-wing government announced a series of tax cuts to try and bring down household bills but even this has not compensated for the huge rise in prices.

According to the UOC, Spain’s largest consumer organisation, the average annual home electricity bill in Spain has risen from 675 euros in 2020 to 949 euros in 2021, a rise of 41 percent.

The previous record jump, in 2018, was 18 percent.

Vulnerable people, such as “single mums with children, older people with a low income and migrants” are particularly badly hit because many “struggle to get benefits because there’s a lot of red tape and you have to bring in a lot of paperwork,” says Casas.

Layering up, homemade heaters

According to an awareness campaign being run by Medicos del Mundo, some 6.8 million of Spain’s 47 million residents are suffering to one degree or another from “energy poverty”.

Such a situation brings with it “a higher risk of suffering from chronic bronchitis, depression and anxiety,” the NGO says.

One of those struggling is Raul, a 55-year-old computer technician who lives with his wife, daughter and 82-year-old mother-in-law in the
northwestern city of A Coruña.

“Whenever we turn something on, we have to think about how much the bill will go up,” says Raul who hasn’t worked since suffering a stroke in March 2021, with the family living off his wife’s salary.

“My neurologist told me I should avoid stress but it’s very difficult when you don’t know if you’re going to be able to pay next month’s bills,” he says, admitting they have barely switched on the heating this winter, despite the cold and the humidity.

“We bought a heated blanket for my mother-in-law” and “inside the house, I always wear lots of jumpers or coats,” he says.

He has also been trying to cobble together a home-made heater.

“It’s a temporary solution,” shrugs Raul, who says he is keeping his fingers crossed “that the prices will eventually come down”.

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