There is little doubt about the need to expand renewable energy in Spain, either to reduce the emissions that cause global warming or to lower the energy bill. However, how to do it is provoking a growing struggle at the local level. In recent days, there have been two relevant movements in the tug of war between two very different visions. In Catalonia, on Monday a manifesto was presented, supported by experts from very different fields, calling for an acceleration of the development of renewables in this community: “Photovoltaic power plants and wind farms – on land and offshore – have to become part of our landscape” , points out the text supported by prestigious scientists such as the National Geographic explorer Enric Sala, the marine ecologist from the Blanes Center for Advanced Studies (CEAB-CSIC) Kike Ballesteros or the executive director of the Global Carbon Project international consortium, Pep Canadell. Almost at the same time, in the Valencian Community, just a few days before, the general director of Ecological Transition, Pedro Fresco, was dismissed, precisely one of the voices that defends the need to accelerate the construction of photovoltaic and wind power plants in Spain, in the midst of strong discrepancies with Compromís, a party that advocates starting with smaller solar projects on rooftops.
Faced with those who ask to speed up, others prefer to step on the brake. “We believe that a part of that manifesto [en Cataluña] it is poorly focused, because renewables have to go into anthropized spaces and fundamentally in small projects, there are scientists who support this text, but there are also a lot of scientists who say that part of their conclusions are not correct”, points out Montserrat Coberó Farrés, of the Xarxa Catalana per una Transició Energètica Justa, an organization that is very critical of the installation of photovoltaic plants on current irrigated land. Although Catalonia is one of the communities that is incorporating the least renewable megawatts into its territory (in 2021 it generated only 17.5% of electricity with renewable sources, compared to 46.7% in Spain as a whole), Coberó Farrés does not believe that time to think big, but quite the opposite. “Obviously, we all want to move towards renewables, but we are convinced that it is much more sustainable and resilient to base renewables above all on self-consumption projects, in families, industries, agricultural facilities, and in energy communities, with small projects that arise, if possible, from the initiatives of the territory itself”, emphasizes the Catalan.
Those who call for more haste in the face of the seriousness of the climate threat also support small rooftop installations, but consider that this is not enough to rapidly reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Fresco himself described as “outrageous” the proposal by the Valencian Government to begin the deployment of photovoltaic covering the buildings with solar panels. “It is an unreal debate,” says the former director general of Ecological Transition, who understands that this approach only seeks to divert attention because it would take more than 40 years to fill all the roofs to get less than 10% of the energy that we need. “The climate emergency requires that everything be done at once,” argues Fresco, who ensures that building 20 small plants requires much more work and time than building one that generates the same amount of energy.
Apart from the size of the facilities, discrepancies also arise over the ownership of the plants and their location. Fernando Prieto, director of the Sustainability Observatory, is in favor of giving priority to self-consumption and energy communities beyond large companies and defends that California or countries like Australia have chosen to cover buildings. “There are also soccer stadiums and train stations,” he points out. In addition, it alleges that the Ministry of Transition’s own Roadmap for Self-consumption speaks of significant technical potential (169 GW) and that this would be the best option for highly populated territories such as Madrid, which is in the tail in the generation of renewables, due to the limited free surface available. Likewise, this professor of Ecology believes that artificial surfaces such as landfills, rubbish dumps or greenhouses must first be used.
Pedro Fresco does not rule out resorting to degraded soils, but apart from the existing regulatory barriers, he warns of the side effects of this approach: “These may be far from the substations in which the energy has to be poured and, then, what It does is fill the territory with high-voltage power lines to reach the nearest station”. Although Fernando Prieto admits this problem, he considers that there are cases like Teruel in which there are dumps that already have evacuation routes due to the existence of the Andorra thermal power plant.
Catalonia and the Valencian Community are, among the large communities, one of the furthest behind in the generation of renewable energy. In your hands is the approval of small and medium parks, up to 50 MW. In both regional administrations, the developers are also finding obstacles to carry out their plans, so in the case of Catalonia they have opted to unite various projects to bypass the regional administration and go directly to the state administration, which is the who has to approve the great plans. The smallholder profile of these territories means that companies have to manage the rental or purchase of land with dozens, if not hundreds, of owners. “The bigger the plant, the less possible actors can aspire to make it,” warns Pedro Fresco, who draws the paradox in the attempt to protect the landscape. Fernando Prieto advocates the proliferation of energy communities “because energy does not come from large companies, it is something for everyone.”
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Between one and the other, Greenpeace defends citizen energy and also large plants, but what they do not agree with is that it is time to stop. “Obviously, where more is needed to promote and support is in citizen energy, so that it is in the hands of the people, whatever the size. And, of course, we must also continue with self-consumption, in the part that is least developed, which is shared”, comments José Luis García, an energy expert from the environmental organization. “But there is no time, at the speed that climate change is going, the need to replace fossil fuels is of the utmost urgency, with which renewables are needed at all scales.”
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