Two countries, worlds apart on renewable energy

17 January 2011

I’ve just come home to Australia after working for Greenpeace in Europe during 2010. The incredible growth of renewables over there is so obvious, from farmlands dotted by wind turbines in Germany to solar panels on cottages in Holland and large-scale solar plants in Spain.

European renewable energy success stories are becoming well known, but this report from our friend and colleague at Greenpeace Spain, Jose-Luis Garcia, sums up the incredible growth in renewables that can be achieved with the right policy incentives…


On January 6, it is traditional that Spanish children receive gifts from the three wise men, a day far more anticipated than the arrival of Santa Claus. The most feared gift used to be coal, a sign that the children had behaved badly over the past year. Coal is also a bad sign for the environment, because it’s the largest source of CO2 to the atmosphere and a major driver of global warming. But happily in Spain, things are changing.

In the morning of the three wise men, while children all over Spain opened their gifts and thousands of new electronic gadgets were plugged into the grid, none of the nation’s electricity was coming from coal. Over the whole day, three-quarters of Spain’s electricity was met from renewable sources while coal barely reached 4% of supply.

Annual data from Red Electrica, a major Spanish power transmission company, confirms the unstoppable rise of clean energies in Spain. In 2010, renewables supplied 35% of all Spain’s electricity, higher than ever before, and even though overall power consumption was higher than 2009. Wind power alone supplied 16%, twice as much power as coal and on very windy days, wind power peaked at over half the national power consumption.

The great beneficiary of increased renewable supply was the environment. Thanks to renewables, coal-fired power dropped by 34% last year and gas-fired power dropped 17%, with 22 gas projects being cancelled. This meant CO2 emissions from Spain’s power system fell by 20% last year. Our renewables were also able to cover for nuclear power plant failures, incluiding those from the great advocate of nuclear energy, France. For the first time, France became a net importer of electricity from Spain, something only possible thanks to renewables.

The economic benefits of Spain’s renewables are also impressive. As shown in this report by the Spanish Association of Renewable Energy Producers (Spanish only, I’m afraid), renewables made electricity production cheaper, reducing total cost by € 4,830 million in 2009 (more than covering the payments received in the feed-in tariff incentive program), they contributed € 8,525 million to national GDP and were worth €3,042 million in exports. Despite the government making cuts to the highly-successful feed-in tariff incentive (the cuts costing Spain 20,000 jobs) renewables still provide jobs for 100,000 people in Spain.

So we can be happy that Spain’s target of 30% of electricity from renewables in 2010 has been easily surpassed. In fact, the 2020 target from Spanish Parliament of 35.5% power from renewables has almost been reached already, showing our political representatives’ lack of vision, or their caving in to lobbying from utilities and the whole dirty energy sector, who don’t want the impressive success of renewables to continue.

In Greenpeace we shall work in 2011 for not just Spain, but around the world, to acknowledge that the horizon that we must point to is no other than 100% renewable.

Jose Luis Garcia
Clean Energy Project campaigner, Greenpeace Spain

Jose’s report was in stark contrast to what I was reading when re-acquainting myself with the Australian renewable energy scene. The latest figures from the Clean Energy Council show Australia’s renewable energy industry virtually grinding to a halt in 2010. After wind installations fell from 482 Megawatts (MW) in 2008 to 409 MW in 2009*, the Clean Energy Council reports only 167 MW coming online in 2010. The only renewable energy technology to show major growth was solar PV, which almost tripled in growth from 2009.

On the whole, renewable energy provided merely 8.67% of Australia’s power last year, most of this due to returning water for hydro-power plants, and even job figures were down on 2009.

Years of stalling and meddling with policies supposed to support renewable energy have created uncertainty for companies wanting to invest in and construct renewable energy projects. Even as Australians’ insatiable appetite for solar is shining through in the statistics, programs such as the New South Wales government feed-in tariff for solar PV are looking likely to be closed, creating the potential for yet another boom/bust cycle in the industry.

The renewable energy industry in Australia needs what Spain has enjoyed in recent years. Strong, stable policies that allow industry to make clear investment decisions. While Jose and our other friends at Greenpeace Spain will be campaigning for further growth in renewables this year, we in Australia will be working to catch up with our Spanish colleagues and make the important steps required for a renewable energy revolution.

An important start will be to rule out the building of new coal-fired power plants and you can help make that happen by telling your banks, superannuation funds and political leaders to pull their support out of new coal. Click here to take action that supports our campaign for an energy revolution.

*I got the figures on new wind installations from reports by the Global Wind Energy Council, which you can find here for 2008 and here for 2009.