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ENERGY

Spain and Portugal’s cost-cutting ‘energy island’ plan gets EU approval

Spain and Portugal reached an agreement with the European Commission Tuesday to slash electricity prices on the Iberian Peninsula, under an exemption allowing them to separate it from the price of gas.

Spain and Portugal's cost-cutting 'energy island' plan gets EU approval
Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa (L) and his Spanish counterpart Pedro Sánchez during a press conference in 2020. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

According to Madrid, around 40 percent of households should benefit from the system, and between 70 and 80 per cent of companies will be affected.

“We have reached a political agreement with the Commission”, said the Spanish Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera, at a press conference in Brussels with her Portuguese counterpart Jose Duarte Cordeiro.

The deal, which should come into force in the next few days, will help “strengthen the protection of Spanish and Portuguese consumers… who have a higher level of exposure to the evolution of the wholesale market,” she said.

At the end of March, the European Union authorised Spain and Portugal to take “exceptional measures” to reduce the price of gas used to produce electricity and to alleviate household energy bills, which are particularly high in the two countries.

The cost of energy has risen sharply in recent months in Spain and Portugal because of European electricity market rules, which force producers to sell their energy at the price of the most expensive technology — currently gas-fired power stations.

For months, Madrid and Lisbon have been fighting against this system, which was deemed unsuited to the energy situation on the Iberian Peninsula.

But several European countries were opposed to a reform, saying they feared the impact on competition within the EU.

The Iberian exception was approved in view of the two countries’ “particular situation”, as they have “energy mixes composed mainly of renewable energies and very few interconnections with the European market”, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

What is an energy island?

Spain and Portugal are in a strategically advantageous position in that they’re not as dependent on Russian natural gas as many of their European neighbours, importing most of it from Algeria and other countries.

Spain is also the country with the largest gas storage and regasification capacity in Europe and together with Portugal is a renewable energy leader in terms of solar, hydraulic and wind power. Their energy markets are more self-sufficient and extremely well connected between both nations.

This has led the two countries that form the Iberian peninsula (as well as tiny Andorra) to be referred to as an “energy island” by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Portuguese counterpart António Costa, as a simplified way of describing why their countries should (and now have been) temporarily released from the EU’s common market rules.

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ENERGY

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.

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