The Spanish renewable energy sector is actually one of the few sectors that is helping employment during the EU economic crisis.
Guest Blog by Laura Fernandez
When I decided to pursue my Master’s degree in Canada, one of the main reasons for my decision was the idea that Canadians were very environmentally-concerned people and I thought I could learn a lot from a society like that. My preconceptions about Canada were confirmed by my experience both at school and work here until I started working on Environmental Defence's renewable energy campaign. During that time I was surprised to see the great concern and opposition towards renewable energy technologies, particularly wind power, even among environmentally-aware people.
This was particularly shocking for me coming from a country, Spain, which is one of the world leaders in renewable energy. Renewable energy is already part of our landscape, and you can even say of our culture. We take such pride on achieving renewable energy goals that every time renewable energy production reaches a maximum, it appears on national news. Consequently, it was shocking for me to see how people from a country so environmentally advanced in other sectors could be so reluctant to support renewable energy. Given that in general environmental awareness doesn't seem to be an issue for Canadians, I figured misinformation had to be the reason behind this reluctance.
In speaking to people, I discovered that their main concern is health risks. When I first heard that, I remember thinking, “What health risks?” I always had to assure them that no matter how many wind farms or solar panels we have in Spain, illnesses such as cancer have not increased in my country, nor has anyone started growing a third arm. When I asked for a specific reason for those health concerns, most people pointed out the noise. Although it is true that wind generators make noise (everything that moves in this world does), regulations make sure they are far enough away from homes that they do not disturb residents in the area and technology is constantly improving to reduce noise. I always recommend that people walk by the wind turbine located at Toronto’s Exhibition Place. You can’t hear it, no matter how little traffic there is on Lake Shore Boulevard.
Another big concern is the actual potential of renewables to produce enough energy to satisfy our needs. In the European Union, Directive 2009/28/CE establishes that by 2020 a minimum of 20% of gross final energy consumption must come from renewable sources of energy. This may sound idealistic, but by 2011, Spain was already getting 13.2% of its electricity from renewable energy (30% if you include hydroelectric). More specifically, in 2010 wind power represented 14.6% of total energy production, with more than 43,700 gigawatt hours (GWh), covering more than 16% of the total national demand and surpassing on very favourable conditions 50% of the hourly energy demand. In that same year, the solar sector produced 2.3% of total energy. Photovoltaics produced 6,279 GWh; solar thermal energy 2,128 GWh; and concentrated solar power 691 GWh. The latter is the technology that has the greatest potential for increase in the future. For example, the PS10 (11MW) and PS20 (20MW) solar power plants
built near Seville, which are already operative, are part of a bigger complex that will produce 300 MW and will provide energy for 180,000 homes (the whole city of Seville). Spain exemplifies how a big share of energy production can come from renewable energies without changing our way of life. Ontario is particularly suitable for wind energy production and it is realistic to expect that a great percentage of the province’s energy can come from wind turbines.
Economic viability of renewable energy is also a concern many people I've spoken with. On more than one occasion, I proudly told people about the high percentage of renewable energy in my country, and the reply was, “and look how Spain is doing!”, as if renewable energy was to be blamed for the economic crisis that Spain (and many other countries in various stages of renewable energy implementation) is experiencing!
In 2010, there were more than 200 companies in the wind energy sector, more than 500 companies in the photovoltaic sector and more than 100 in the solar thermic sector. Spanish companies are leaders in concentration solar power technology, participating in many projects being developed all around the world. In 2009, the renewable energy sector contributed 10,283.3 million euros (directly and indirectly) to the gross domestic product, representing 0.98% of the total GDP. Moreover, in 2010, the renewable energy sector employed 148,394 people, 88,209 of them directly. Thus, the renewable energy sector is far from being blamed for the crisis. It’s indeed one of the few sectors that has remained unaffected by the crisis and even kept increasing.
There is some controversy now about how governments in Europe are backtracking on their renewable energy programs. This is not due to the inefficiency of renewables, but rather to political ideas. Ontario has a great opportunity to learn from European experience and develop an improved renewable energy plan that takes them to a greener future. Our leaders took that chance many years ago, and took us on a more sustainable path, one that not even the economic crisis will be able to turn.