Spain at 70% non-Carbon Electricity: Will it be 1st Net Carbon Zero G-20 State?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

CleanTechnica reports that Spain got nearly 70% of its electricity from plants that did not generate carbon dioxide in March. The two biggest non-carbon energy sources were nuclear and wind.

In recent years, the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy cut some government subsidies and other help to the solar energy industry. But given the fall in price of wind and solar energy, the government is now rethinking this policy and has plans for a big expansion of both over the next few years.

If Spain doubles its wind generation from 22% of its energy mix to 40% in the next five years, as it plans, then that would take it to 87% of its electricity from renewables and nuclear. The other 13% may well be supplied by solar, allowing the decommissioning of the coal plants, assuming the government reverses its decision to remove solar subsidies, which has hurt investors in that sector. Note that fossil fuel industries typically get government subsidies, which the MSM doesn’t usually talk about, and that Spain is especially at risk from climate change effects such as desertification and sea level rise, so “subsidies” for clean energy would save the country trillions of dollars over time.

Spain, a country of 47 million people, has a gross domestic product of $1.4 trillion, making it the world’s 14th largest economy and ranging it with Australia and South Korea in that regard. If it can go completely to renewables and nuclear with regard to electricity generation, then it may well be the first large, economically consequential country to go entirely green.

In contrast, Australia gets 92% of its electricity from burning coal, petroleum and natural gas, even though the continent has abundant solar and wind. Its current prime minister, Tony Abbott, is closely tied to Big Oil and is a climate change denialist. Mexico, another country with a GDP similar to that of Spain, also is a major carbon polluter. Canada’s GDP is a bit larger than Spain’s but it is also a major dirty energy polluter, endangering the earth with its irresponsible dumping of C02, a dangerous and powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

This non-carbon energy is something that Spain could have within 5 years through expansion of wind and solar. Indeed, not all of the renewable energy even need come from Spain itself. Morocco is connected to the southern Spanish electricity grid, and could export its own ample wind and solar energy. Morocco is in the midst of a green energy revolution.

Other green energy experiments are being conducted, in Denmark, Portugal and Scotland, but these states have relatively small populations, ranging from 4 to 10.5 million, and they have a fraction of Spain’s gross domestic product. Germany is also adopting green energy on a very large scale, but as the world’s fourth largest economy with a population nearly twice that of Spain, it will take longer to get to net carbon zero. France actually gets more of its electricity from non-carbon sources than Spain, since it relies heavily on nuclear (70% of electricity generation). It could also theoretically get to net carbon zero soon, but questions are raised by its decision to reduce the share of nuclear to 50%. In contrast, Spain is already nearly 50% renewables in electricity generation. If Spain goes net carbon zero in electricity during the next decade, effecting that change mainly by an increase in wind and solar, that is huge.

Of course, truly to get to net carbon zero, Spain would have to redo its transportation system to run on electricity generated by renewables, as well. But once the electrical grid is non-carbon, having it power trains and subways would not be so difficult. Mass adoption of electric cars is around the corner. It would also have to move to non-cement building materials and sustainable agriculture, including moving away from cattle raising (the country has 6 mn. head of cattle, a major drain on water and agricultural resources; beef is the most carbon-intensive foodstuff).

Spain, having few hydrocarbons of its own, will save a great deal of money on imports of natural gas and petroleum by going toward free fuel, which will help its economy. It will benefit from being a renewables leader in the European Union, where Brussels will increasingly punish high carbon polluting states. And it will avoid the lawsuits that will increasingly bedevil knowing carbon polluters.

Above all, Spain demonstrates that even in a country where the conservative government has not been supportive of renewables, non-carbon energy can make substantial strides and even completely replace fossil fuels in a major industrialized economy. In short, if Spain can do it, anyone can.


Related video:

Geobeats from last year: ” Wind Energy is Spain’s Primary Source of Power”

21 Responses

  1. Odd that you don’t mention Sweden that has had an almost fossil fuel free electricity production for many years now. It’s nuclear, hydro, biofuels and recently expanding wind power.

    • I have written about Sweden. But my point is that Spain and France are G-20 states with big populations and big GDPs.

  2. Professor, its not possible to have 100% energy from wind and solar power because neither of these two systems work when there is no sun and no wind. This can be for days on end at night in Spain as I can attest having been there many times.

  3. This is some much needed positive news as life under the Abbott regime (the climate change denialist you mentioned) can be surreal- e.g. ‘wind farms are a blight on the landscape’ and ‘coal is good for humanity’. Those are verbatim

  4. Meh. The Spanish government effectively gutted solar energy through highly controversial measures, leaving tenths of thousands of families on the brink of bankruptcy. New renewable installed power has been nearly zero for the past 3 years, and will remain that way until a new government takes over (though perhaps investors will never trust a Spanish government ever again).

  5. Spain is certainly at risk from desertification, but it’s relatively less at risk from sea level rise. Madrid is the only major EU capital which would survive complete melting of the icecap. London, Rome, Berlin, and even Paris would be hopelessly gone. Even for Spain it would be really bad, but they’re still less at risk that most.

    Very encouraging to see the trends against fossil fuel use even under crooked Conservative leadership.

    • Plus Spain is in a belt that is expected tosubstantially dry out, so that could be a big deal. And damages from drought will hurt a lot sooner than sealevel rise will.

  6. Good points — a bit tongue in cheek, perhaps (my comment), but getting the Spanish to move away from beef production will be hard. The Spanish, generally, are quite open to new ideas but threaten their toros…..

    Also, maybe if something has to be flooded, better the thieves in the capitals.

  7. Just a note:
    I’m not sure I would call an economy with a substantial nuclear power sector “entirely green”. Unlike wind and solar, nuclear has a fuel cycle that has bad environmental consequences (mining uranium pollutes the envrionment, the issue of how to safely dispose of used nuclear fuel has yet to be solved). Further, nuclear is a technology that has large, unacknowledged subsidies, such as the Price-Anderson act in the U.S. that makes insurance affordable for nuclear plants by limiting accident liability (the taxpayers get to pick up the tab…).

    • Nuclear is problematic. But it isn’t nearly as problematic as carbon emissions. Environmentalists are going to have to make some tough choices for about 10 years, after which I predict solar will be so cheap that nuclear can’t survive. Personally I think Germany made a poor choice to phase out nuclear abruptly and replace some of it with coal!

      • I would agree with you there. While I don’t think new build Nuclear makes sense, keeping the old plants running until we have reached deep de-carbonization makes sense.

  8. Spain is a coastal country, so it benefits from powerful winds all year long.
    I want to see other coastal countries developing the same wind power infrastructure to make their energy mix more clean.

  9. Good article. But I don’t see how it is possible to get as high as 87% production fossil free, given that solar only provides power in the daytime free of clouds, and wind is probably not much of a producer at night either. Can nuclear and hydropower really fill that gap?

    • a) Spain’s Abengoa pioneered molten salt batteries for solar plants that lets them go on generating electricity six or seven hours after sundown. Other types of batteries are rapidly falling in price, so solar can soon do it all. b) Wind often blows quite hard at night along the Atlantic and it therefore complements solar. And b), yes, hydro and nuclear can fill the gap.

  10. While it’s true that Spain’s rising use of clean energy is remarkable, it’s also true that taken alone it does next to nothing to protect it from the effects of climate change. I was in Andalucia in early November. I drove through groves of giant windmills interspersed through acres of olive groves. The olive groves are parched from drought and a disastrous 2015 crop is expected.
    Or one can travel to the Donana Nature Preserve—the first area ever protected by the World Wildlife Fund. Donana includes a marsh that in the fall normally hosts millions of nesting and migrating birds. The marsh was dry; the birds absent. No one was sure where they had gone.
    So Spain has gone from knights errant jousting at windmills to towering windmills jousting with the dry, hot wind, a reprise of futility. No single country can stop the ecocide. There is no solution except a global one.

    • Of course the solution has to be global. But a) it matters whether we stop at a 4 degree F. increase or do double or triple that and b) it helps to shut up the denialists if there are in fact major, industrialized low- or net zero carbon countries.

  11. France has had >90% of its electricity generated by “non-Carbon” methods (low CO2 is a much better description) for decades. If the rest of us had followed their example, we wouldn’t even be talking about climate change.

  12. BTW Spain is not actually in the G20, it just gets invited to all the meetings. This is because the organizers wanted to include countries which are not really top-20 economies (like South Africa), for the sake of geographic and religious diversity, but then had to think about what to do with the higher-ranking countries they displaced. The Netherlands was in a similar position, but they stopped getting invited.

  13. I forwarded you article to a friend who lives in Spain and got the following response:-

    Impressive but missing one tiny detail, any mention of cost? No

    I have in front of me our latest electricity bill for two months, 786.94 Euros.
    This is broken down 32 % for energy production, 46 % renewable energy subsidies,distribution and reduction of the deficit, 21 % Taxes.

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