As thousands of holidaymakers fly into Menorca this summer, a glance out the window will illustrate the past and future of the island’s energy system.
In the picturesque harbour of the capital, Mahón, where cruise ships dock alongside a marina full of luxury yachts, sits a pollution-belching, oil-fired power station inaugurated by Gen Franco more than half a century ago.
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On the other side of this Mediterranean isle lie row upon row of solar panels, tucked between traditional dry-stone walls.
The Balearics, like many islands, are overwhelmingly reliant on costly, dirty fossil fuel imports for power, heat and transport.
There is mediterranean sun – and Menorca is known as the windy island – but renewables have barely made a dent. Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera generate only 4% of their power from green energy on the islands, and have some of the lowest renewables figures in the whole of Spain.
The local government, however, has recently launched a plan to transform the islands’ energy usage and a new climate law, with the aim of converting to 100% renewables by 2050, which it says will help tourism, protect the environment and save money.
What is Spain’s track record on renewable energy?
Wind, hydro and solar power provide about a third of Spain’s electricity needs. Renewables grew rapidly in the country during the noughties but installations crashed in the face of government policy changes between 2012 and 2015. Retrospective changes to some schemes also put off investors. But the government held two auctions of renewable subsidies in 2017, which were mostly won by windfarms and solar projects, which are due to come online by 2020. Spain is second only to Germany in Europe for installed wind power capacity.
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“It’s not a political act, we haven’t done it to win votes. We believe it’s the right thing,” Francina Armengol, the president of the Balearic government, said.
Her blueprint says renewables should reach 35% of electricity needs by 2030, that an ageing coal plant on Mallorca be shut down by 2025 and the use of more gas as solar grows.
Large new car parks – the islands have some of the highest car ownership levels in Spain – will be ordered to fit solar power. New diesel cars will be banned from 2025. Electric cars will be supported by charging points and street lights will be switched to LEDs.
It won’t be an easy transition, however. There are local and national obstacles to this vision. While the governments in the Balearics and Madrid, together with the tourist industry, energy companies, unions and ecologists are publicly agreed on the end destination, there are disagreements over the timetable.
Citing energy security, Madrid has rejected the Balearic government’s proposal to gradually close the sizeable Es Murterar coal power station in Mallorca and fill the gap with existing gas capacity.
Endesa, the company that runs coal, gas and oil plants on the islands, has suggested a compromise, with Es Murterar being mothballed but not dismantled.
Renewables supplied just 11% of the Balearics’ electricity needs in 2017, and most of that was imported from the mainland
The six coal, gas and oil power stations
Down since Oct
2017, new one
installed by 2020
The six coal, gas and oil power stations
Down since Oct 2017,
new one installed by 2020
Guardian graphic. Source: Endesa
Some of the station’s 300 workers are unconvinced, despite promises of retraining and new job opportunities in the renewables business. “There will be no light and no jobs,” said one employee on a break outside the plant, which is adjacent to a natural park and only a few minutes walk behind the tourist hotels and sandy beach of Alcudia Bay in the north-east of the island.
There are also significant local challenges to the obvious alternative of more solar power.
Residents have campaigned against solar projects because they are a blot on the landscape and because solar firms want agricultural land. As Marc Pons, the Balearic government’s energy minister, admits: “There is a lot of sensitivity in rural areas.”
The main conservation group in Mallorca – GOB Mallorca – welcomes small solar schemes, especially on rooftops, but spokesperson Margalida Ramis said it opposes large-scale solar farms that “are not about community but profit”.
But scale is necessary to make solar economics work here and to overcome other local challenges – such as land-leasing costs five times higher than on the mainland.
Jordi Quer, who runs a solar firm in Mallorca, is frustrated but determined. “We are just waiting for a solar industry here,” he said.
In the meantime, local government is trying to kickstart the industry. Solar arrays have been fitted on scores of public buildings, from schools to hospitals.
A further hurdle is the Balearics’ regulated energy market. The islands’ fossil fuel power station operators receive a €250-300m annual subsidy, to compensate them for keeping energy prices for householders the same as they are on the mainland. Solar park owners do not.
Teresa Ribera, a former Spanish climate minister, said the use of public money should be an argument for “the best and cleanest options, not to waste the money in dirty options”.
In Menorca, there are some more hopeful signs. Mahon’s oil power station is expected to switch to cleaner gas within two or three years. Conxa Junalola, the town’s mayor, said residents are “very worried” about the impact on their health from burning oil.
Meanwhile, a significant 49MW solar farm should spring up by 2020 next to the existing 4MW one. That would take solar from 2.5% of the island’s electricity needs to around a fifth.
While there is a “hardcore” of locals opposing the new solar park, which still awaits permission from Madrid for a grid connection, it is backed by the island’s influential green group. GOB Menorca wants to see more big solar farms, adapted to the landscape.
It is not only islanders calling for more renewables. Research by the tour operator TUI, a major presence on the islands, shows holidaymakers want hoteliers to use renewable energy.
Jane Ashton, sustainability director at the tour operator, said: “I think they [tourists] definitely do care. Our research over the years has shown that.” A Guardian straw poll of tourists in Palma, Mallorca’s capital, found they were shocked by how little solar was being used.
Madrid, which is believed to prefer expanding renewables on the mainland and upgrading undersea cables to export more of it to the Balearics, insists it was not blocking the islands’ green plan. Talks between the Balearics and national government have been described as “productive”.
Spain is advancing more renewables and decarbonising its energy system, an energy ministry spokesperson added.