There are increasingly more individuals and companies taking an interest in clean power ‘We are still dependent on energy from abroad, and little of it comes from renewable sources’ ‘We are in the 21st century, but the entire energy model we have today was designed by people from the 19th century’ Since 2010, the price of solar energy has dropped by 73% and wind power by 23%
‘The change has to come from the bottom up. But consumers need the tools to do it’ Webatt is a Catalan firm that installs smart electric batteries; Innover, also Catalan, promotes the self-supply of power
Núria is from Girona. Three years ago she began looking after a relative who had become ill and had to be connected to an oxygen concentrator 24 hours a day. “The device is expensive, but it is covered by the social security. But what they don’t pay is the electricity bill. Our bill suddenly jumped to €300 a month,” she says. After making enquiries and checking the numbers, Núria had a solar panel installed on her roof.
“It paid for itself in a year, because the bill was halved immediately,” she says. She also changed company and learnt to better manage her power supply, disconnecting the panel when she went on holiday, for example. “Leaving it plugged in over August caused the bill to go up a lot, even though we weren’t even at home. And it wasn’t because of the electricity we were using but what we were producing,” she adds. It seems absurd but it’s true. Until now, Spanish legislation penalises energy producers who are not large companies, with the argument that they are using the public power grid for their own consumption. It is a case of the PP’s dire sun tax, which was clearly brought in to discourage the use of renewable energy and which this summer the EU finally agreed to remove.
Fortunately, the effort to dissuade people from turning to renewable energy sources – which can be explained by looking at how many former politicians are on the boards of large power companies – does not always work. There are increasingly more individuals like Núria and firms taking an interest in clean power, whether it is to save money or out of concern for the environment. According to the head of the Catalan Energy Institute, Assumpta Farran, this process tying technological to social transition is an unstoppable one.
The end of an era
In 2015, two things happened that can be considered the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. On the one hand, the Paris climate change summit and, on the other, the Volkswagen emissions scandal. With public awareness on the up, there is no slowing in the technological advances making it possible, for example, for the sharing of energy ownership between individuals in Germany and other European countries.
In Catalonia, however, this type of progress is just beginning. In some more advanced countries, the debate on renewable energy is already over. The discussion now is how to plug the gaps in the use of these energy sources, because in some places it is not always sunny or windy. “Although we are in a privileged situation, we are 15 years behind. We are still 92% dependent on energy from abroad, and very little of it comes from renewable sources,” says Farran.
For businessman Joan Vila, president of the PIMEC business association’s Energy Commission, “We are moving forward so slowly that we are barely moving at all, and if there is no disruption there will be no leap forward.” Vila believes it will take a lot to get out of the current comfort zone: “If things are going well no one will do their homework, no politician wants people to stop being comfortable.” The businessman says that solar energy is not being implemented because the sun tax has stopped it, “but at the same time, in Terres de l’Ebre they have made it clear that they do not want energy infrastructure, nor do the people in Empordà, and hydropower is at its limit.”
What is needed, says Vila, is a change of mentality. “Just substituting one type of energy for another won’t do anything. Barcelona will not stop experiencing congestion simply by substituting petrol cars for electric cars. What is needed is to promote the public transport system. And the same thing needs to happen in the other sectors of the economy,” he says. Farran also thinks that a change of paradigm is needed to introduce a new way of seeing things. “We are in the 21st century, but the entire energy model we have today was designed by people from the 19th century, such as Tesla, Edison, Ford, Graham Bell... And the problem is that the energy transition is being considered using the concepts of those 19th-century people,” she says. This way we could find ourselves with an apparently new model, but as it only involves a change of energy source; it forgets the social part of the equation.
“The great gurus of energy change are always the same and come from the past 200 years, which means they want to solve a problem based on the problem itself. And it is here where the break will take place,” says Farran, who does not favour the change being an “evolution” but rather a “revolution” in which the public play a leading role.
Despite there being millions of power consumers, there are only a few producers, around a hundred, and they control the market. In recent years, however, things have happened that could change this dynamic, such as increasingly cheaper technology. For example, since 2010 the price of solar energy has dropped by 73% and wind power by 23%. “Before today, no individual could consider owning a nuclear power plant, oil rig or gas pipeline. Now, however, it is possible for 500 households to get together and get their own wind turbine. In the same way that we are living through a political transition, we are also living through an energy transition,” says the head of ICAEN, who is convinced that the 21st century will be the century of electricity and renewable energy sources because: “To be honest, I do not see robots giving off smoke.”
The president of the Cluster for the Energy Efficiency of Catalonia, Xavier Farriols, also points to the public as the driving force of this transition. “The change,” says Farriols, “has to come from the bottom up. But for consumers to take action, they need the tools to do so. The consumer, who is at the centre of the electrical system, as defined by the European Commission, needs hints about the market and instruments to incentivise the adoption of this new role. That is why we propose more market flexibility and more capacity for public management.” The world of energy now has a new term to define these consumer/producers: the prosumers (proactive consumers).
A vision for a country
Right now, the renewable energy used in Catalonia does not reach even 10% of the total, whether produced here or abroad. The aim of the climate change law – which the State government has challenged in the Constitutional Court – is to reach 50% of the total by 2030, and 100% by 2050. It is a higher percentage than the one set by the Council of the European Union, which recently lowered the 35% target proposed by the European Parliament to 32%. While it is an extremely ambitious target, it is not entirely impossible.
“We have a lot of work to do to catch up, it is a mission for the government, a mission for the country. One of the most important things that has to be done in this political term is a law of urgent measures to implement solar and wind power within a distributive and participative model. We are not talking about making huge parks of 300 megawatts, we are talking about all towns and citizens getting involved,” says Farran.
The institute head also points out that oil, coal, gas, even uranium, all need to be dug out of the earth. “We are very much aware that we can no longer look downwards, we have to look up. Yet we still haven’t done so, and if we look at the regulations on urban planning, energy, construction… we see that the sun is not taken into account anywhere as a possible energy source,” she says.
This is why a change in the law is so important, as is convincing all parts of society to commit to the process. Farran argues for making the rural world understand that implementing renewable energies can be economically worthwhile, and she also points out that cities have to accept their role as large energy consumers. “Cities cannot say that they use renewable energy without being concerned about where it comes from. The local authorities have to make sure that they buy power that is produced close by. Why not make an agreement to buy energy produced in a nearby county for the next 15 years? Such a guarantee would mean that local production could go ahead without any problems, while also escaping the game played by the State authorities, who change the rules whenever it suits them,” she says.
This is not a new practice and, in fact, is done by large companies, such as Google and Amazon, who buy energy in advance from energy parks that do not yet exist, while helping to fund them.
While the public in general is becoming more aware that the future is renewable, in Catalonia steps are being taken to go even further. Three Catalan companies: Bassols Energia, Estabanell Energia and Factor Energia, as well as one from Malaga, Olivo Energy, have reached an agreement to create Entra (Energy Transition) an energy demand aggregator.
This is something that has still not been regulated in Spain, but has proved to be a success in countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark. Aggregators act as intermediaries to which individuals or companies hand over the management of their energy consumption or production, allowing demand to be managed in a more flexible and interconnected way.
Let’s imagine an aggregator that manages the energy of a thousand households and some companies. Thanks to new technology and the digitalisation of services, the aggregator can lower the thermostat in a house by a degree if it knows that the price of power is higher or it can suggest a time for using the washing machine and take advantage of that energy saved to cover the sudden demand of another client. Thus, things are managed more efficiently and the flow of power is maintained, as this allows more room for manoeuvre: it will look for energy wherever it might find it, whether that produced by a neighbour’s solar panel or that stored in the batteries of a company’s electric vehicles that are not being used. In short, it manages demand in terms of supply. “There are millions of us consumers, it’s true, but we are invisible. However, when we come together we stop being so,” points out Farran.
The launch of Entra, which is a pioneer project in Spain, is not the only indicator that the panorama is changing, and a new business model can be perceived. Webatt, for example, is a new Catalan company that installs smart electric batteries for domestic use, while Innover, also Catalan, promotes the self-supply of power and has joined up with the German firm Solarwatt to promote the use of batteries, then Holaluz has signed an agreement with Tesla... It is clear that finding a solution for storing energy will bring about a radical transformation.
For one moment, let’s just imagine, for example, that we can generate our own power, which we can then store at home, sell, share, exchange... All of that is now technically possible, but what is needed is for us to accept this and for the authorities to make these things easier to do. “When we talk about building a country we think about the infrastructure of airports, roads... but we do not think about energy. And that’s a shame, especially because we could build a winning country, because the energy source par excellence is the sun. And we have sun, lots of sun,” Farran concludes.
Barcelona sells its own power
Since February, Barcelona Energia has sold the electricity produced by 41 solar plants installed on municipal buildings, such as that in Sant Adrià del Besós. The amount of power produced is enough to provide energy every year to 87,000 households, making it the biggest seller of 100% publicly-owned electricity in Spain, with the added extra that it is renewable energy. The idea is to use the power to supply all of the city’s municipal facilities, and for next year to extend it to the public and supply some 20,000 households in the city. “We offer the best prices, geared towards making savings and efficiency. We are not looking to make a profit, but to empower the citizen,” said Barcelona councillor, Eloi Badia.
The image below shows the view from the first jointly-owned wind turbine in Catalonia (and in Spain), which was recently inaugurated in Pujalt, in L’Anoia. It is an Enercon E-103 EP2 2.35 megawatt wind generator, like those we see in wind parks around the country. However, this turbine does not belong to a company, but rather a group of 533 individuals who put their money together to purchase it. The amount of electricity it generates is enough for 2,000 households, and as it feeds into the grid, it helps raise the amount of clean power in circulation. It is estimated that this turbine alone will avoid some 6,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere every year.
Plugging in to the future
The future of applied renewable energy has never been as close to us as it is today and local government is at the forefront of its promotion and development the world overIRENE CASELLAS / firstname.lastname@example.org
In carrer Virgili in the Sant Andreu district of Barcelona you will find Casal Can Portabella, an old 19th-century industrial site converted into municipal offices in 2016; the premises are self-sufficient for electricity thanks to solar panels. It is not the only sustainable space in the city: the 11,000m² building at carrer Calabria 66, also in the Sant Antoni neighbourhood, the Joan Oliver Civic Centre in Les Cortes, Lleialtat Santsenca... These buildings are just some of those on a long list of premises already using solar power, and this green energy will also be reaching primary and secondary schools soon. “We’re promoting a change of model, with more democratic proposals that favour energy independence,” explains city councillor Eloi Badia.
The goal is to double the amount of solar power generated in the city, and for this reason the council has promoted the Barcelona Energia company, which will offer users with solar panels a fairer rate that balances energy generated with consumption. But the idea goes further still. From the very beginning the challenge has been to help renewable electricity spread throughout the territory. For this to be viable, the question of energy storage needs to be addressed. The electricity market is the only one where the product is generated and consumed immediately. Electricity circulates through the network and no way has been found to store it... so far.
Mobility will save us, says Albert Clusella, from Moià, who bought an Opel Ampera electric car two years ago. He says that he took the plunge for three reasons: firstly, due to environmental awarenesss, also to save money, and because he found a secondhand model that he liked at an affordable price. “I’m delighted, it has many advantages, and consumption is just the start. I can do 100 kilometres at a cost of €1.50. Also, since I always charge it at night, which is when the rate is lower, in the morning I leave the house fully charged, without having to worry about having to stop to fill the tank. And driving it is fantastic, because the acceleration is progressive it can almost be driven by varying the accelerator so the brake pads are practically not worn at all,” he explains.
Making electric vehicles attractive is important for two reasons: because fossil fuel can be replaced by green energy and, if users have their own solar panels, they can charge the car with the energy they produce. In fact, the greatest change in our energy model will come from the development of new batteries thanks to mobile phone technology. These batteries will allow electric vehicles to store energy, so users can create an energy stock.
Controlling stock will make it possible to overcome the problems related to renewable energies, such as when there is no sunlight or wind, or the opposite, which could cause overload and thus endanger the grid. An electric car with a battery that can store the energy a household might need in a week opens up many possibilities. That is why the Catalan government is strongly committed to the spread of charging points for electric vehicles, as they hope it will convince users of their feasibility and advantages. “Article 155 set us back, but we are confident that in a year or two the network will be fully operational,” explains Assumpta Farran, who notes that although we are a little behind, at least the delay has meant that newer technology is now cheaper.
Lessons from abroad
Renewable energies continue to be on the rise all over the planet. Catalonia needs to learn the lesson of what’s happening in other countries in order to take on the challenges of the energy revolutionirene casellas / email@example.com
Catalonia is lagging behind in the development of renewable energy. Yet, this fact also has a positive side, as it will allow us to learn from the mistakes of those societies that started earlier. A good example is California, where a high level of environmental sensitivity has encouraged the spread of solar panels. This means that many consumers use less power during the day, when it’s sunny, and contribute to the network with self-produced energy.
Yet, to make it possible for that energy to get to the households when it is needed means the system must be working 24 hours a day, while maintaining a balance between electricity generation and consumption. Energy is not stored on a large scale, and so it needs to be continously available.
Therefore, if during the day the solar panels in California distributing energy to private households and companies generate too much, injecting more than is needed into the system, infrastructure such as cables are put at risk. In fact, California occasionally needs to offer free energy to neighbouring states, such as Arizona and Nevada, something that actually costs it money. It’s like your swimming pool flooding when it rains a lot and you having to pay your neighbour to help you get rid of the excess water.
What’s more, California is looking for a solution to the so-called “duck curve”, the sudden peak demand of energy in the evening, when the panels stop producing and households need energy from the network. These problems are applicable to other places with a lot of sun, and that’s why some politicians, such as the PP’s former Minister for Energy, Álvaro Nadal, has used them to defend dirty energy – from fossil fuels or nuclear power – arguing it is more manageable. “This is a solution from the last century. Batteries in homes and vehicles are an option for the future. In any case, we’re opening a new door and we need to see what’s on the other side,” says the director of the agency ICAEN.