Favourable breezes make wind Spain’s main electricity source

Buoyed by a surge in investment and new projects, wind power has become Spain's main source of electricity generation just as Europe seeks to curb its energy imports from Russia. 

Favourable breezes make wind Spain's main electricity source
This photograph shows wind turbines in a wind farm in Villar de los Navarros, Zaragoza province in Spain on April 5, 2022. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

“We are on suitable ground here,” said Joaquin Garcia Latorre, project director at Enel Green Power Espana, pointing to gigantic masts erected on the heights of the tiny northeastern village of Villar de los Navarros. 

The Spanish-Italian firm picked this spot, which is well exposed to the wind, to set up a 180-megawatt wind farm, one of the country’s biggest.  Dubbed Tico Wind, its 43 wind turbines started producing power in November, said Latorre while workers around him tended to the turbines, which are over 100 metres (328 feet) high. 

“There are between 2,500 and 3,000 hours of wind here per year,” he added. 

The wind farm will be able to produce 471 gigawatt hours per year — enough to meet the demands of 148,000 households — after it becomes fully operational in a month. 

These types of projects have popped up across Spain in recent years, making it Europe’s second-biggest wind power producer after Germany for installed capacity and the world’s fifth biggest. 

Wind power became the main source of electricity production in Spain last year, accounting for 23 percent, ahead of nuclear (21 percent) and gas (17 percent), according to national grid operator REE. 

The sector “benefits from a favourable situation” although “brakes” remain on its development, such as a dependency on government auctions, said Francisco Valverde Sanchez, renewables specialist at electricity consultants Menta Energia. 

Investor interest

Following a boom in the 2000s thanks to generous public financial aid, the sector suffered a sudden halt when subsidies were slashed in 2013 during Spain’s economic crisis. 

It has since charged ahead. Spain, which has a total of 1,265 wind farms, had an installed wind power capacity of 28.1 gigawatts in 2021, up from 23.4 gigawatts in 2018, according to industry group AEE. 

With large swathes of sparsely populated land, a favourable legal framework and cutting edge wind turbine makers, Spain is one of the most “interesting” markets for wind power investors, said AEE director general Juan Virgilio Marquez. 

Spain is home to several sector heavyweights such as Iberdrola and Naturgay, making it a top exporter of wind power equipment.

“This explains the dynamism of the sector,” said Marquez. 

Investor interest has even come from outside of the energy sector.  In November Spain’s Amancio Ortega, the founder of fast fashion giant Zara and one of the world’s richest men, injected 245 million euros ($268 million) in a wind farm in the northeastern region of Aragon. 

Energy ‘breadbasket’ 

Spain in 2020 pledged to generate 74 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, up from 47 percent. 

To meet this target, Spain is counting on the development of offshore wind power, a sector that is in its infancy. 

But since Spain has thousands of kilometres of coastline, offshore wind has lots of room to grow. 

“This is an ambitious goal,” said Valverde Sanchez, arguing that government bureaucracy around wind farm projects must be reduced for it to be met. 

Nearly 600 wind power projects are currently under study by the government, according to AEE. 

As part of its plan to respond to the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Spain has pledged to speed up the approval of wind power projects of less than 75 megawatts. 

“Our country had enough natural resources to become Europe’s leading producer and exporter of renewable energy,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Wednesday, adding this could be key to help the European Union meet its goal of “energy independence”. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Brussels has declared a mission to cut the EU’s Russian gas imports by two thirds this year and to end the use of Russian gas by 2027.  Spain “could become the energy ‘breadbasket’ of Europe,” said Virgilio Marquez. 

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How war in Ukraine is reviving France-Spain MidCat gas pipeline project

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Madrid has revived calls to build a huge gas pipeline between Spain and France dubbed MidCat that would boost Europe's energy independence from Russia.

How war in Ukraine is reviving France-Spain MidCat gas pipeline project

What is MidCat?

Initially launched in 2003, the 190-kilometre (120-mile) Midi-Catalonia (MidCat) pipeline would pump gas across the Pyrenees from Hostalric just north of Barcelona to Barbaira in southern France.

Its aim was to transport gas from Algeria through Spain to the rest of the European Union. There are currently only two small gas pipelines linking Spain and France.

But following several years of work, the project was abandoned in 2019 after energy regulators from both countries rejected it amid questions over its environmental impact and profitability.

Why restart it?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the EU has vowed to end its dependence on gas from Russia, which currently supplies nearly 40 percent of the bloc’s gas needs.

A 750-kilometre deepwater pipeline called Medgaz already links gas-rich Algeria with southern Spain.

A second underwater pipeline, called GME links Spain to Algeria via Morocco but Algiers in November shut supply through it due to a diplomatic conflict with Rabat.

Spain also has six terminals for regasifying and storing liquefied natural gas (LNG) transported by sea, the largest network in Europe.

Gas which arrives in Spain by sea and pipeline from Algeria could then be sent on to the rest of Europe though MidCat.

The MidCat pipeline is “crucial” to reduce the EU’s reliance on fossil fuels and “end the Kremlin’s blackmail”, EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Friday in Barcelona in a reference to Russia’s threats to halt its gas supplies to the bloc.

Map: European Commission

What are the obstacles?

The MidCat pipeline faces several hurdles, starting with its huge price tag estimated in 2018 at €440 million ($460 million). It would also take three to four years to complete.

“MidCat cannot be approached as a short-term solution,” France’s ambassador to Spain, Jean-Michel Casa, said during an interview with Barcelona-based daily newspaper La Vanguadia in March.

In addition, there is a lack of connections between France and Germany, the country which is most interested in finding alternatives to Russian gas.

It would be “much simpler to bring gas directly by boat to Germany,” said Thierry Bros, an energy expert at the Science Po university in Paris.

“This would of course require building gas terminals in Germany” but their cost would not be higher than building MidCat, he told AFP.

How much support does MidCat have?

Despite the debate over its usefulness, MidCat enjoys significant support, especially in Spain where the authorities are pushing for Brussels to declare the project to be of “community interest”.

France has so far been more reserved but according to Madrid this position is changing.

There is a new “perception of the risks and opportunities” that MidCat brings, Spanish Energy Minister Teresa Ribera said, adding Paris “has understood” that Midcat “must” be built.

There are also questions over the financing for the project.

Madrid argues Brussels should foot the bill, not Spanish taxpayers, because the project would benefit the entire EU.

But the European commission has not yet committed to funding it.

Spain also wants the pipeline to be compatible with the transport of green hydrogen, in the hopes this will boost its appeal to Brussels which has made financing renewable energy projects a priority.