Spain, Portugal show that 50%, even 70% Power from Renewables is Possible Right now

(By Juan Cole)

The miserable record of the United States in tackling its deadly carbon dioxide emissions (5 billion metric tons a year) sometimes obscures how very possible it is for industrial economies to go green. Spain, a country of 47 million, was nearly at 50% renewables for electricity generation in 2013.

Spain drove down its greenhouse gas emissions from power generation by 23%

That 50% from renewables doesn’t count another 21% from nuclear, which although not renewable is relatively low-carbon. As a result, Spain drove down its greenhouse gas emissions from power generation by 23% in 2013. The gains were very significantly from increased wind power generation. Wind gave Spain 21% of its electricity last year, equaling the output of its nuclear reactors and increasing over the previous year by 12%. Solar also contributed, and expanded, despite the Rajoy government’s hostility to it. Heavier than usual rains also upped the yield from hydroelectric.

h/t OfWeek

Because of the increased wind, solar and hydroelectric output, coal-fired plants generated 27% less electricity than the previous year, natural gas was off 34%, and even nuclear fell a bit, to 8.3%.

Spain demonstrates that a modern industrial economy can successfully integrate large amounts of wind and solar into its grid without making it unstable. In fact, it seems entirely possible that Spain could be 100% carbon free with regard to electricity generation, because of its nuclear reactors. Fossil fuels are already only 30% of its power mix. Reaching that goal will take longer than it might have because the current corrupt, conservative government is hostile to renewables. But the conservatives seem likely to me to lose the next elections, and Spain’s momentum on solar and wind is so great that it just wouldn’t take much to polish off the coal plants altogether. While getting to this point has cost something in government subsidies, the savings if global warming can be slowed will be enormous, especially for Spain, which is threatened with desertification if the temperature goes up 9 degrees F. Wind and solar are probably grid parity now in Spain, so that further subsidies are probably not crucial to increased renewables, though they would speed the change-over.

Portugal (pop. 10 million) did even better in 2013. In the first three months of the year, fully 70% of its electricity came from renewables. In June, that was 72%. Some 37% of that came from hydroelectric. But wind turbines did 27%. Portugal redid its electricity grid in the early zeroes and uses computers to mix energy sources. It also uses hydropumps, using solar and wind to pump water uphill, releasing for hydroelectric power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The wind blew a lot this year.

I reported recently that Scotland (pop. 5.3 mn.) got 40% of its electricity from renewables in 2013 and hopes to go 100% non-carbon by 2020.

Denmark also reached the 40% benchmark, largely through increased wind power generation. Although it has a goal of being 100% green in 2050, it clearly can go faster than that, and ought to have Scotland’s ambition of depending entirely on renewables by 2020.

Five years ago, the countries with high levels of electricity generation from renewables relied primarily on hydroelectric. But just in the past two or three years, wind power in particular has expanded so much that it is equaling or outstripping hydroelectric in many countries (as in Spain).

There is a meme that coal plants are being killed off by cheap natural gas from fracking. But these analyses slight the impact of wind power in particular. In 2013, virtually all the closings of coal-fired plants in the US were owing to inability to compete with wind power. Fracking itself probably cannot compete with increasingly inexpensive wind and solar, and will go by the wayside soon.

Related video:

Euronews reports, Germany opens its largest offshore wind farm

30 Responses

  1. otherchuchu

    Promise?
    “Fracking itself probably cannot compete with increasingly inexpensive wind and solar, and will go by the wayside soon.”

  2. Nuclear is what is needed. There is not two ways about it. As for wind power, show me that it is NOT subsisted by the tax payers and that it is a legitimate economically viable alternative. This is the problem we have to go green but it may have to be at the taxpayers expense and one has to be honest about it otherwise the taxpayers will revolt.

    • I don’t think you’re allowed to advocate for nuclear power, and then complain about power sources that are subsidized by the taxpayers.

    • Oil, gas, and nuclear power are all heavily subsidized by the US government today. Why insist that wind and solar be different??

    • The taxpayers AND RATEPAYERS are not revolting about the current state of drain on national wealth from subsidies to nuclear and carbon-fueled monopolies. Or from losing what, a quarter of the national budget to the entire Global War-Militarize Everything monster. Or all the other subsidies to bidness built into the budget and tax code.

      Can we sign you up for a nice 100-kilo package of high level radioactive powerplant waste while we’re at it, or is that just FUTURE taxpayers’ problem?

      In our “capitalist” world, everything is priced, profit must be added, “privatizing” is the idiot theme, and so NOTHING is cost-free. Even the Second Law of Thermodynamics adds its costs, along with the inevitable levies of Mr. Murphy. But we know what bidness as usual is doing to the planet and our (among other) species, for the profitable benefit (cost- and consequence-free) of the very few who get to die in lavish comfort before the poop hits the fan.

      Seems to me the burden of proof is on those who think Fukushima is just a once-in-a-lifetime aberration, fixable by money and dilution and time, rather than indicative of what high-risk subsidized “engineering” like nuke plants seem inevitably to produce. How many bullets dodged at nuke plants all over the planet, every year?

      But I know this is as much a matter of identity and faith as anything, just like which way the toilet paper roll goes on the holder.

      So much depends on a red wheelbarrow, and the peripheral vision of a plant operator human, and LUCK…

    • Repeal the Price-Anderson(?) act and mandate FULL cleanup and restoration responsibility to nuclear power plant operators and see popular nuclear becomes then

  3. The largest producer of wind power according to Wikipedia is …..surprise the US. Of all the states that produce wind power, number one is…. surprise Texas not North Dakota.

    Here is the source

    Spain is the world’s third biggest producer of wind power, after the United States and Germany, with an installed capacity of 20,661 megawatts (MW) April 2011 [1], a rise of 1,609 MW for the year.[4][5] More than 11% of Spain’s electricity came from wind power in 2008.[5] The largest producer of wind power in Spain is Iberdrola, with 27 percent of capacity, followed by Acciona on 16 percent and Endesa with 10 percent.

    Solar power[edit]Main article: Solar power in Spain
    In 2005 Spain became the first country in Europe to require the installation of photovoltaic electricity generation in new buildings, and the second in the world (after Israel) to require the installation of solar hot water systems.[6] With the construction of the PS10, located near Seville, Spain became the first country to ever have a commercial solar energy power tower.[7]

    Now I understand % wise we are nowhere near the Spaniards but it will also require a total change in the way we live including issues of urban sprawl, of public transportation, and of decreased consumption and more efficient cars.

    Here is the source

    Spain is the world’s third biggest producer of wind power, after the United States and Germany, with an installed capacity of 20,661 megawatts (MW) April 2011 [1], a rise of 1,609 MW for the year.[4][5] More than 11% of Spain’s electricity came from wind power in 2008.[5] The largest producer of wind power in Spain is Iberdrola, with 27 percent of capacity, followed by Acciona on 16 percent and Endesa with 10 percent.

    Solar power[edit]Main article: Solar power in Spain
    In 2005 Spain became the first country in Europe to require the installation of photovoltaic electricity generation in new buildings, and the second in the world (after Israel) to require the installation of solar hot water systems.[6] With the construction of the PS10, located near Seville, Spain became the first country to ever have a commercial solar energy power tower.[7]

    Bashing the US all the time gets tyring after awhile as if there is nothing good in this country.

    Whiners and Busy Bodies

    • The *proportion* of US energy from renewables is tiny, and that is what matters. The US is 7 times more populous than Spain and uses much more than 7 times as much energy, and its carbon emissions are also much more than 7 times those of Spain. Proportionally speaking, its investment in renewables is laughable and also tragic and I hope it gets well and truly sued by the rest of the world for its massive irresponsibility. Spain (the current government excepted) is a much better world citizen.

        • Individuals putting PV panels on their rooftops will be more important for at least the next couple of years in US than utility scale solar expansion, which tells me the US is not taking seriously our 2020 deadline for holding to a 3.2 degree F increase in average temperatures, more than which will be destabilizing. We have a $16 trillion dollar economy and since we’re going to lose Florida over this, it would be worth putting some real money into it. link to eia.gov

        • So, no numbers and no link supporting your assertion about comparative investment between the US and Spain?

          OK. Before I follow your change of subject, let me file this one under “silence is deafening.”

          So, anyway, care to explain why distributed solar doesn’t count?

  4. “There is a meme that coal plants are being killed off by cheap natural gas from fracking.”

    A “meme” which is very accurate at describing the closing of coal-fired power plants to date.

    “But these analyses slight the impact of wind power in particular. In 2013, virtually all the closings of coal-fired plants in the US were owing to inability to compete with wind power.”

    No. Any coal-fired power plant that closed in 2013 was scheduled for closing before 2013. It’s going forward, as American renewable production, bolstered by the largest investment of any country in the world, continues its exponential growth, that we’ll start seeing power plant closing caused by renewables.

    Natural gas was only even a bridge from coal to renewables. I agree that we’ll start seeing it wind down as wind and solar ramp up, and that we may be at the deflection point now, or hit it very soon.

  5. Must we stop and convince “observer” that not a single taxpayer dime will be spent on wind power? Is this the standard? I suppose the Manhattan Project was funded by the Rockefellers? How about if “observer” explains how taxpayers won’t have to pay a dime to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain or Hanford or how taxpayers in Japan will never have to spend a dime on Fukishima cleanup? May I assume “nuclear is what is needed” is in jest?

  6. Wind and solar will never be enough unless we have a dramatic change in the way we live.
    I emphasized that in % terms we are nowhere near the Europeans on a per capita basis. There is simply no comparison there. However, I always like to point out that the data presented like any scientific data has to be put in prespective.

    As for taxpayers they will have to foot the bill no question the point I am making is that in the current climate of severe partisanship it will not happen especially with the Tea Party nuts around.

    Now I live in Minnesota and we are slated to have 20% of our energy needs from wind and solar and believe we have the wind and the windchil to prove it.

    North Dakota should do the same for it along with Texas has a high wind “value” and a tax should be levied on the oil fracking to keep the carbon footprint tiny if possible.

    Also it is now clear that China surpassed the US in its carbon emission and therefore omitting to mention that fact also skewes the debate. They are producing so much pollution that they are going to die just as birds that overflew Mexico City at one point would fall off from the sky dead.

    To give you an example of our energy consumption: if we were to burn every tree in North America ( that is the US and Mexico and Canada) it would be sufficient for the energy needs for a mere one week according to one expert ( I am sorry do not remember the reference )

    Capitalism as we know it is incompatible with life on earth. . .

  7. America’s problem is that a very large percentage of the world’s oil, coal, and natural gas companies started here and are headquartered here. Consequently, they own our government.

    America’s other problem is that our vaunted two-party system is actually more easily corrupted and *less* representative than most European countries.

  8. Hold it: there’s a big hole in Professor Cole’s argument.

    The figures he provide are for Spain and Portugal’s domestic electrical generation, not usage.

    Both countries import about 3/4 of the electricity they consume.

    • Well they have no fossil fuels to speak of, of their own, so it is fair to talk about what they’ve done with regard to domestic energy policy. Spain reduced fossil fuel imports by $1.2 bn this year, substituting local wind, and there is every prospect of of imports falling further.

      • You misunderstand: Spain and Portugal import 3/4 of their electricity – not energy more broadly, such as fossil fuels, but generated electrical power – from abroad.

        It certainly is fair to talk about talk about the small segment of Spanish and Portuguese energy consumption that comes from domestic generation. What isn’t fair is to compare this small segment to overall American generation, instead of discussing where the power they consume comes from.

  9. Spain and Portugal have this money to invest, in large part, because they did not squander their money on wars of empire.

    With just half the projected 4 trillion cost of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and incidental wars, we could have:

    1. Installed $25K worth of solar/wind on 40 million homes (1 Trillion)
    2. Installed $25K worth of conservation measures on 40 million homes (1 Trillion)

    … and still had 2 Trillion left over to spend on infrastructure, education, and so much more.

      • Re Joe’s supposed point,

        link to wsws.org

        link to globalresearch.ca

        link to beforeitsnews.com

        Same story for Portugal (this is just the first entry from google) link to monitor.net

        Yah, those former colonial empires are sure sending their militaries to our own Imperial dance-offs. Hundreds of troops, wise enough to get out quick after seeing where the “UN Force” was headed. I like the one piece that lists the last S anish trooper to die. Look forward to the name of “our” terminal casualty, sorrow in advance for his or her loved ones… And what percent of the economies of Spain and Portugal go to their militaries, again? Oh, we must remember that the US provides their “security,” right? and arm-twists them into sending troops to legitimate the “UN” activities?

        Some people just never met an Empire they could resist apologizing for.

  10. It is time for people to organize to take back their government. Continuing to lament the oil companies and other interests can only be stopped by the people.

    Recommended reading: Why Nations Fail

  11. The Rajoy government in Spain went completely bonkers and is trying to tax people for going off the grid. Solar has already reached grid parity, so Rajoy, as agent of the coal and oil lobbies, is applying confiscatory taxes to it.

    Unfortunately, you should probably write about this. The mere fact that solar is actually cheaper and quite sufficient for all energy needs isn’t going to help if the government puts confiscatory taxes on it and sends police into people’s homes to confiscate their unauthorized solar panels (which is actually part of Rajoy’s latest law).

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