Spain receives too many requests to build wind farms and solar parks. This flood of proposals creates a backlog that slows down the approval process for new green energy projects. To solve the problem, the Spanish government – led by a left-wing coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and its junior partner Unidas Podemos – is calling for proposals least likely to pass an environmental assessment to be withdrawn.
Spain aims to provide 60,000 MW of renewable energy by 2030. However, the current proposals combined would connect the country to a 150,000 MW grid, mainly from wind and solar power. This avalanche of applications not only greatly exceeds Spain’s energy needs, but also creates a huge administrative backlog that makes it difficult to carry out environmental assessments and lengthens processing times. As a result, perfectly viable projects may not be approved on time.
At the end of 2021, the Spanish government approved a royal decree to adopt urgent measures to promote electric vehicles and renewable energies. To compensate for the backlog, the legislation has extended the timelines for the various stages of the process, particularly the environmental assessment stage, which has been the hardest hit by the bottleneck. Paradoxically, despite being overwhelmed, the authorities must evaluate each proposal in order of arrival, even if it is clear that a project has little chance of being approved.
“Given that there are many more projects than necessary, and that there are some in more environmentally sensitive areas, I am often asked why we do not filter directly [the least promising projects]says Ismael Aznar, head of quality and environmental assessment at the Spanish Ministry of Ecological Transition. But that’s not possible, he says. “The administration cannot simply exclude projects because it wants to, it must explain the reasons. This means that he must follow a process and have a complete file: he must analyze the project, the environmental impact study and even the public information that comes from the open consultation processes.
This process is time-consuming and particularly complicated when wind farm and solar farm proposals are tied to long power lines, which also need to be analysed. One project, for example, wants to bring renewable energy from the Aragon region to Barcelona, a journey of more than 150 kilometers through half of Catalonia.
The high volume of requests leads to a very high workload, for which the competent authorities are not properly equipped
Ismael Aznar, Head of Environmental Assessment at the Spanish Ministry for Ecological Transition
The impact of such projects due to their use of power lines, which are usually excessively long, is the most common reason cited by the ministry for rejecting a proposal. This is done on the grounds that it failed the EA. Other reasons for a negative evaluation are the direct impact that the project will have on areas of high environmental sensitivity for avifauna or on those that are under protection. For example, the proposed solar park at Otero (505 MW) in Segovia and the wind farm at Biota (58.7 MW) in Zaragoza were recently rejected for environmental reasons.
In some cases, the government can directly decide not to admit a project for review if it is not environmentally viable. Nevertheless, even in these exceptional situations, before this can happen, an analysis of the request and the reports of the various environmental bodies must be carried out.
Aznar explains: “In the beginning there were a lot of applications coming in, it was a very fast process and maybe now the developers themselves have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding a project, the environmental constraints and the difficulties it faces. may have to move on.
Under the 2021 Royal Decree, if developers withdraw their project before January 23, they will recover the investment needed to start the process: €40,000 per megawatt (MW). If a project is rejected during the standard review process, it will not recover this financial guarantee (unless it was rejected for external reasons). “The recovery of the guarantee is an incentive to withdraw from the most contentious projects,” explains Aznar.
The Ministry of Ecological Transition is currently processing 697 renewable energy projects: 467 solar parks, 211 wind farms, two hydroelectric proposals and 17 hybrid power plants. Together they would produce 66,000 MW. Of this figure, 19,700 MW of projects are at the environmental assessment stage. This number, however, represents only the largest projects that are under consideration. Small renewable energy proposals, with a capacity of less than 50 MW, are dealt with by the Spanish regional authorities, not by the central government.
“The high volume of requests means that there is a very high workload, which the competent authorities, at all levels [water management authorities, regional agencies, national government], are not properly equipped,” says Aznar. According to this expert, the authorities must also take into account the “synergistic impacts” of proposals located in the same area due, for example, to their proximity to electricity connection points. In other words, the review does not just consider the impact “of a single project, but rather of several projects in the same area”.