Photovoltaic systems big time: spain backs the sun again

Energy companies see plenty of potential for megaprojects in the pent-up demand for solar energy. Small and decentralized ones are falling by the wayside.

The main thing is big: solar power plant in Beneixama in Spain Photo: Jochen Tack/imagebroker/picture alliance

The sun is back. Six years after the conservative government under Mariano Rajoy put an almost complete stop to new construction, photovoltaic plants are being built again in Spain. And not just any – these are large-scale plants the likes of which the European continent has never seen before.

In the Murcia region, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s Cobra group is building a 1,000-hectare plant with 494 megawatts (MW). In Badajoz, a 500 MW plant by Iberdrola will soon go online. Not far away, the same utility is planning another 590 MW on 1,300 hectares. This is equivalent to about 2.5 times the area of Berlin’s Tiergarten park.

These are just three projects from a long list of large-scale plants already approved, totaling 28 gigawatts. By 2030, 3 to 4 GW of photovoltaics are to be installed annually in Spain. This is planned by the Ministry for the Energy Transition of the socialist government under Pedro Sanchez.

Spain has some catching up to do. In the country on the sunny Iberian Peninsula, only just under 6 GW has been installed so far. In Germany, which has less sunshine, the figure is 46 GW.

Optimism reigns again after a decade

The big players in the construction and energy sectors have – as the projects show – understood the signs of the times. "Photovoltaics will be the most important energy source in the coming decades," says Jose Donoso, president of the Spanish Photovoltaic Association.

After a decade in which governments first cut feed-in tariffs and then even imposed an almost total construction freeze in 2012, optimism now reigns again, he says. "Spain is offering investors peace of mind and security again," Donoso explains. Moreover, photovoltaics have long since ceased to need subsidies. The technology is now so mature that it is competitive, he says.

The evidence: Only a small proportion of the plants have been planned after the auction of capacities, which are guaranteed a minimum purchase price of 32 euros per MW. The rest build because they have a buyer who markets the energy directly. The very brave produce directly for the daily market on the electricity price exchange.

Jose Donoso, President of the Photovoltaic Association.

"Photovoltaics will be the most important source of energy in the coming decades"

But not everyone is as pleased as Donoso. Above all, the operators of small and medium-sized plants united in the National Association of Photovoltaic Producers (Anpier) are looking with concern at the current development. "We want the plants to be much more decentralized and the profits thus socialized," says Anpier director Rafael Barrera.

To achieve this, he says, the government must grant special arrangements for small and medium-sized operators in the auctions in the future. This is the only way to prevent the big players from completely dominating the market, he adds.

The figures show what Barrera means. In the 3,000 MW of capacity auctioned two years ago, 90 percent went to just 30 operators. Anpier estimates that a quarter of that ended up in the hands of international investment funds. That, in turn, means the profits are going out of the country. And of the plants built outside the auctions, 60 percent are also owned by large companies, he said.

More jobs from smaller plants

"If the government does not intervene, we will miss an important opportunity. Because small and medium-sized plants create many more jobs. And most importantly, they ensure that people stay in rural areas because they have an additional income," Barrera says. The Anpier spokesman repeatedly cites Germany. There, he says, about half of the installed capacity comes from systems with 40 kilowatts or less for self-consumption.

"They finally realized what the future holds," says Eduardo Collado, a veteran in the industry and university lecturer on renewable energy. "The big players are trying everything to monopolize photovoltaics," which is the only way they can secure their influence in the future. "Because soon they will be without nuclear plants and without coal plants."

Collado calls for "democratization," that is, a broad network of small and medium-sized plants as well as plants for self-consumption. Only in this way could "consumers become masters of their own energy." This also avoids unnecessary investments in the power grid, he said. "Large plants need an expansion of the high-voltage grid in order to be connected, while the existing lines could handle small plants without a major expansion," Collado says.

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