Nadine Hawa and Terry Slavin report on the some of the headwinds facing the southern European country faces as it transitions away from fossil fuels

The EU clung on to its position as the world’s decarbonisation leader at last week’s climate summit by committing to a legally binding goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030 (compared with 1990), an escalation from its previous target submitted to the IPCC of 40%. It also committed to reach net-zero by 2050.

But the target is for the EU as a whole rather than each of the 27 individual states. And the question is: will the bloc’s member states, which will be asked to revise their climate plans in line with the newly set ambition, be able to deliver?

One country to look for answers to that question is Spain, which already has a head start in the energy transition.

The southern European state, which enjoys 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, is blessed with prodigious renewable energy resources. In 2019, it ranked sixth in the world for solar installations, and fifth in the world for wind, behind China, the U.S., Germany and India.

Spain, dependent on fossil fuel imports for 74% of its energy, is facing challenges in meeting its existing targets

Yet even Spain’s existing national energy and climate plan (NECP), to bring emissions down 23% from 1990 and increasing the share of renewables in electricity generation to 74% from 43.6%, is a far cry from the 2030 goal that the EU has just set.

And observers say Spain, dependent on fossil fuel imports for 74% of its energy, is facing challenges in meeting its existing targets, including rising Nimbyism and concerns that Spain will struggle to get its restive administrative regions on board amid political instability that has also hampered Spain’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Approved last May, the Law on Climate Change and Energy Transition pledges to make Spain’s electricity system 100% renewable by 2050, ban coal, oil and gas extraction projects, end fossil fuel subsidies and make all new vehicles emission-free by 2040.

Abengoa Solar's 11MW installation near Seville. (Credit: Natalia Budianska/Shutterstock)

To get there, the NECP calls for the installation at least 3,000MW of wind and solar power capacity every year, over 10 years. Spain is also allocating 37% of the €140bn it will receive from the European coronavirus recovery fund, Next Generation EU, to its net-zero transition, and is seeking to mobilise €230bn in investment over the next decade; 20% of which will come from public sources, and the rest from private and mixed investment.

Spanish renewable energy giant Iberdrola is gearing up to do its part. Iberdrola, which signed a €2.5bn credit facility with 21 banks to support plans to double its global renewable energy capacity to 60GW over the next five years, plans to increase installed capacity in Spain from 16,700MW to 25,000MW by 2025.

Earlier this month Iberdrola announced a strategic alliance with Spain’s largest insurer MAPFRE, to make joint investments in 230MW of wind and solar projects.

We all want green energy, but nobody wants to give up on a beautiful landscape – nobody wants to have windmills or a photovoltaic park

But implementing Spain’s climate targets requires active involvement by regional and local governments. According to the European Climate Foundation, Spain’s highly polarised political environment is creating inertia that puts meeting those targets at risk. It adds that it is essential to ensure continuous coordination between the central government and autonomous communities.

Jordi Garcia, vice-president power products and digital energy for the Iberia zone at Schneider Electric, said: “Just as Europe places conditions on Spain, in order to comply with them, the local government will also have to apply them to the different autonomous communities.”

Carlota Pi is co-founder and executive president at Spanish green electricity company Holaluz, which is ranked number one on Sustainalytics’ 2020 ESG world-ranking for electricity companies.

Spain’s ‘sun tax’ halted solar development by taxing home installations. (Credit: sosn-a/Shutterstock)

She believes key barriers also remain at the municipal level, despite Spain’s move in 2018 to abolish the “sun” tax, a controversial measure introduced in 2015 that put a freeze on solar development by taxing the development and home installation of photovoltaic solar energy.

“There are many municipalities where complications remain, as each municipality reserves the right to introduce its own legislation. This very issue presents an important, unsolved barrier,” Pi says.

Pi adds that a lack of “big picture awareness” ties into a separate challenge Spain is grappling with on its road to net-zero: public resistance.

Garcia echoes her views. “We all want green energy, but nobody wants to give up on a beautiful landscape – nobody wants to have windmills or a photovoltaic park, which bring negative visual impact and/or present discomfort in terms of movement or noise. It is the Nimby effect [not in my backyard].”

To achieve net-zero goals as a country, we need everyone to be on board

One compromise may be offshore wind: a 300MW floating wind farm that Iberdrola is building off the coast of Spain with Next Generation EU funding will open in 2026, and could be the first of 2,000MW of potential new developments the energy company has identified.

However, Pi believes that it will remain difficult to secure consumer buy-in unless the financial, environmental and health benefits of renewable energy are communicated to individuals, and local governments also help facilitate the transition. “To achieve net-zero goals as a country, we need everyone to be on board.”

She says individuals must lead the green transition; as voters, consumers and producers, or “prosumers”, as highlighted in a recent report by the World Economic Forum, The Net Zero Challenge.

“By speeding up the rooftop revolution, we could achieve that goal [of 100% renewable energy] well before 2030, let alone 2050.”

Catalans protesting in February; regional and political differences are stumbling blocks to net-zero. (Credit: Albert Gea/Reuters)

Peter Sweatman, chief executive and founder of Madrid-based consultancy Climate Strategy, said in an email that political instability has the potential to put the brakes to Spain’s climate ambition. But he said: “In Spain, my personal experience in working at the more technical levels of climate with congressmen and women, senators and businesses, is that on climate there is much broader agreement across the political spectrum than perhaps the ‘overall political situation’ suggests or that is visible at the very top level.”

He pointed out that the EU process of becoming “fit for 1.5C” is not over. “We'll only see in June the package of legislation which is provided at the EU-level to support [how] that new ambition [is delivered at the level of member states]. Spain is an energy importer, and aside from renewables has few other autochthonous primary energy sources."

He added the it makes sense for Spain economically, socially and environmentally to speed up its transition to renewable energy. With the second largest injection of new money from the Next Generation EU fund to recover from this pandemic, and with over 37% pledged as investments into this green economy, I think that in the very short term, Spain will get a boost in its progress to delivering its NECP and may, as a result, be placed to increase ambition based upon those results.”

Main picture credit: Vincent West/Reuters


Spain NECP  offshore wind  Iberdrola  solar energy  renewable energy  net-zero transition  Nimbyism  EU Next Generation fund  Peter Sweatman 

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