In early April, Elon Musk tweeted that Spain could supply energy to the whole of Europe by building “a massive solar array”. Spain’s president, Pedro Sánchez, picked up the gauntlet replied on Twitter that in Spain there was a “super ambitious” investment plan in renewables and that this was the time to enter. “Come and see it,” he wrote.
According to Yahoo News, after Moscow shut off Gazprom’s gas pipe to Poland and Bulgaria last week and threatened to do the same to other countries in the 27-member European Union, Musk’s tweet is now taken more seriously by politicians.
“If we occupied one-quarter of Spain’s land with just photovoltaics and solar panels, Spain could produce all the energy consumed in Europe,” Mario Sánchez-Herrero, founder of the nonprofit cooperative Ecooo Energía Ciudadana, said to Yahoo News. He explained that it was almost impossible to think Spain would simply convert the vast amount of land required for solar and wind farms.
Spain may have some of the factors needed to become a net exporter of renewable energies: sun, wind and territory. Since the 2018 decree law for the energy transition ended distortions such as the so-called sun tax, the growth in the sector has been substantial. Only the photovoltaic panels that were incorporated for self-consumption in 2021 (1.2 GW, according to the Spanish Photovoltaic Union) represent more than 1% of the current installed power in Spain. Last year, renewables broke records and accounted for 46.7% of all national electricity generation.
For the next few years, the goal is to far exceed the 39 GW that the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan had set as a target for installed photovoltaic capacity by 2030. Where the objectives are not being met is in the electrical interconnections needed to sell the surpluses of renewable generation to the rest of Europe, which, for now, cannot be stored.
Within the Iberian Peninsula there is good integration between Spain, Andorra and Portugal, but the key interconnection for selling to the continent is the one that passes through France. The minimal requirements set by the European Union was an interconnection representing 10% of installed power in 2020; and in 2030, 15%. Spain is far from meeting those goals.
After five underground interconnections under the Pyrenees, Spain’s Electric Network or Red Eléctrica is now deploying one under water and reaches France through the Bay of Biscay. In exchange for avoiding the political resistance that a passage through the Pyrenees implies, costs are incurred which could double or even triple those of an overland interconnection. Not to mention complexities such as the detour caused by the Cap Breton sea trench. The initial plan, initially scheduled for 2025, has been changed to 2027.
It’s not just about the economic benefit of exporting surplus megawatts, but also about minimizing the intermittency effect of these energies. If all of Europe were 100% interconnected, surpluses of renewables in one country would automatically offset deficits in another.
Some experts propose that France is not particularly interested in the idea. The explanation might be that the French utility company, EDF, has to amortize the gigantic construction costs of its nuclear plants before giving way to new and more competitive sources of energy from countries such as Spain.
French resistance will now have to contend with European Commission, which, in the face of the energy crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine, has less patience with countries that put obstacles in the way of the urgent development of renewable alternatives to Russian hydrocarbons. According to Le Monde, EDF is studying cracks that have appeared in the safety systems of several of its nuclear reactors and only 30, out of 56, are now operating.
If electricity interconnection is the ideal mechanism for exporting renewables when they are generated, the production of green hydrogen is the best way to store their surplus for later sale. One of the main challenges is that the technology is still in its infancy and years away from reaching the level of maturity needed to meet the expected demand.