At the end of October of last year, Austria began preparing its citizens for an apocalyptic scenario: a major blackout that would collapse the country’s energy system and drag practically all of Europe in an electrical avalanche. It was interpreted, at the time, as a way of attracting attention and even seeking a certain solidarity with the gas supply by its neighbors. However, it turned out to be, in a way, foreboding, because just four months later Russia invaded Ukraine and Putin began to threaten Europe, as if it were a duel, but with his hand not on the revolver, but on the faucet of the gas that supplies the continent. What seemed like a feverish nightmare has turned into a far-off possibility that is already leaving Germany sleepless and forcing the European Union to take action. The first contingency plan will be presented on the 20th and can give Spain a leading role as a storehouse for the fuel it needs, but to a lesser extent. What is clear is that the situation has completely changed: it is no longer enough to achieve the energy transition, it is necessary to achieve sovereignty.

The country cannot boast of having its homework done -no one can do it, at the moment-, but it can boast of having the task advanced and with a good grade. Between wind and solar, about 50% of the electricity of the Spanish energy system is generated annually and the still very relevant gas comes from many sources and Russia is only the fourth country for imports. Algeria has weight, but not as much as in 2021, when the gas pipeline that connected the peninsula through Morocco was closed. The great asset in this sense are the ports to which the liquefied natural gas arrives; 34% of all those in the European Union are on Spanish coasts. In addition, it is estimated that between 60% and 75% of the infrastructures dedicated to this fuel can be adapted to the expected green hydrogen.

The war has not changed the plans, because they were already there in a transitional form, but it has accelerated them. Paradoxically, it has also done so with a new boost from polluting energies, such as coal, which has emerged as a temporary alternative to the oligarchs. Germany has reopened thermal plants and Spain has asked Red Eléctrica if it considers that it should postpone the closure of those that have not yet been dismantled. France, with a more nuclear commitment, has already asked its citizens to reduce energy consumption so as not to depend on Russia.

“It is an economic war”, illustrates Juan Virgilio Márquez, general director of the Wind Business Association. “We are not seeing physical bombing, but we are seeing economic bombing and we are feeling it,” he compares. In this warlike context, concepts change, that step of transition to sovereignty is taken. “The concept of sovereignty, of energy security, is a concept that has been installed among the Government’s objectives for many years, whatever color it may be,” explains Márquez.

It should be remembered that even before the invasion of Ukraine the situation was critical. “We have been faced with the situation that in a very short time we have to protect ourselves from this type of geopolitical decisions that can generate a situation of dependency that, if it was worrying before, is now more so,” details the manager. “We have gone from what was the climatic emergency – which was the main challenge we had and continue to have – to the situation we are experiencing from gas prices and the uncertainty of how they can be handled as a weapon, as is being seen in the European economies. Renewables, he assures him, are “the solution”.

The other great source of the ‘green’ binomial -it will have more arms when hydrogen comes into play- is photovoltaics, which is in a similar situation. “Right now, with the resources we have in Spain, it is the most competitive way to produce energy,” boasts José Donoso, general director of the Spanish Photovoltaic Union (UNEF).

In the case of Spain, in addition, there is a particularity that Donoso considers “an unprecedented opportunity”: it is a country “rich” in sun and with space for plates. “Only Spain has that and that is what means that in this equation we have the cheapest production cost per kilowatt hour, which gives us a competitive advantage to attract these energy-intensive industrial activities to Spain.” And, again, being in the middle of a war, it is an argument that hits twice. “Before Ukraine we had an energy that responded to environmental concerns and economic concerns; now the excessive European dependence on Russian gas has been put on the table,” says the director general of UNEF. “This excessive dependency is producing a loss of national sovereignty; decisions are being conditioned,” he lamented.

The two energies also complement each other: wind power is more efficient in autumn, winter and spring and in the mornings, afternoons and nights; the solar achieves better results in summer and the central hours of the day. Thus, they could be the basis of the energy system, but while it is not possible to store energy on a large scale, they still need the contribution of a consistent and immediate source, which can act even when there is no sun or wind and depending on demand. Today that role is covered by the hydroelectric plant -depending, of course, on rains and droughts- and the aforementioned gas. The idea is that it is gradually replaced by hydrogen.

Spain can be the port of Europe for both fuels. As Arturo Gonzalo, CEO of Enagás, explains: “Spain is very well positioned to become a European hub for green hydrogen.” In 2030, Gonzalo details, it would be in a position to “provide Europe with two million tons of hydrogen per year, which represents 20% of the expected hydrogen production in Europe.”

In any case, there is a long way to go, either with an eye on the transition or raising the bar towards sovereignty. In reality, in the sector they see both parallel paths and a common goal already in sight. There remains, however, a final sprint that will entail a considerable effort to achieve the objectives set for 2030 and 2050 and, warns Juan Virgilio Márquez, we must prevent the race from becoming one of obstacles in those last meters.

“There are projects in the pipeline today that exceed what we have to incorporate annually,” says Márquez. “If the sector had the projects accepted and approved right now, it would start manufacturing and installing 1,000 megawatts in less than a year,” he explains, but it is necessary to have “clear regulation and proper processing.” “It is not a problem of manufacturing capacity or the existence of projects; there are plenty of projects in the pipeline to speed up what we have to do right now as much as possible,” he argues. “We must seek urgent solutions and prioritize those vectors that are going to guarantee us stability, security and, ultimately, the maintenance of the welfare state.”

Spain improves its renewable contribution at a good pace, although, according to reports from the associations, weighed down by bureaucracy. In addition, they consider that the objectives, reasonable when they were set, have become obsolete after Russia demonstrated the importance of having an autonomous energy system. Thus, José Donoso, general director of UNEF, advocates following the German path and “almost doubling” these figures.

“European countries have put themselves in that strange situation of being hostage to Russian gas and having the need to make the most of their endogenous resources,” he explains. The National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC) establishes an installed photovoltaic capacity of 39 gigawatts in the next decade, which Donoso considers insufficient.

“This objective has become clearly obsolete in the current circumstances and with the possibilities and interest that private companies and citizens have in photovoltaics,” he details. “We should be around 70 GW in 2030”, argues the manager, while advancing in “essential storage solutions to be able to guarantee the supply of energy under the same conditions as conventional energies”.

In any case, the trend is positive and there is “strong investor appetite” which means that 900 MW have already been installed in plants so far this year, to which the contribution of self-consumption should be added. Meanwhile, wind power should grow at a rate of 2.2 gigawatts per year, but, after achieving it in 2019, it was slowed down by the pandemic and the procedures. 2022, according to his calculations, will end up above 1,000 megawatts, but far from what is established. “We have to recover lost ground: 2.2 GW per year is realistic, because we have a country with a value chain with a capacity of 4 GW per year,” encourages Juan Virgilio Márquez, general director of the Wind Energy Business Association. “What do we have to do? Accelerate. Do we have the pace to do it? Companies, yes.”

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