The following text corresponds to my participation in the Committee on Petitions of the European Parliament to talk about the social and environmental impacts of renewable energies thanks to the invitation of MEP Sira Rego of the Parliamentary Group of the European United Left and thanks also to the participation and prior pressure from numerous groups and individuals affected by the current deployment of renewable energies in Europe. Álvaro Campos, Luis Bolonio, Helios Escalante and Josefa Sánchez Contreras have collaborated on the contents of this text.
The European Union is a leader in renewable energy generation and in policies for its development as a strategy to address the climate emergency. The Winter Package and Green Deal directives rightly prioritize demand reduction and modular production in built-up areas and degraded areas close to places of consumption, thus reducing material needs and transport losses. The European interest in substantially increasing the contribution of renewable energies to the energy mix from the current 20% to reaching 40% in 2030 is also recognized. The union therefore seeks to reduce the use of dirty energy sources such as coal, oil, the nuclear ones, or the gas that is scarce in the old continent. The urgency and depth of this transition to renewable energy has increased dramatically with the war in Ukraine and the necessary embargo measures on fossil fuels from Russia, restrictions that we hope will also apply to Russian and Kazakh uranium.
All this constitutes an enormous challenge for the European territories and for the institutions of the Union. We risk our future and perhaps that of our planet. However, European policy and the Green Deal itself run into numerous contradictions that could be fatal. In the first place, they have not considered the bottlenecks related to the scarcity of minerals such as neodymium, lithium, silver, and cobalt, among others, which are key to the energy transition and mass electrification. In particular, the production of electrical energy with renewable sources demands large quantities of materials, which are located mainly in remote areas, with high biodiversity, inhabited by indigenous peoples and occupied by authoritarian states, including Russia and China.
In addition, we are facing a transition that requires a large area to install energy production and transport systems. Considering a direct impact of 2.2 hectares per MW in photovoltaic solar, the production of the 672 GW needed in 2030 to reach 40% photovoltaic would require a total extension of almost 1.5 million hectares. In the case of wind power, a direct impact of 32 hectares per MW is calculated, which determines needs of 14.5 million hectares for the 451 GW forecast in 2030. The total sum for renewables could reach 16 million hectares, and so that we understand the dimension of what we are dealing with, the cultivated surface of cereal in Europe is about 60 million hectares. This extraordinary territorial transformation, only comparable to times of greatest urban growth, is generating serious conflicts due to the lack of planning and the evident disorder with which it is developing. This problem is accentuated by the decrease in controls posed by the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (and other similar measures in the states and regions) to respond to emergencies arising from the war in Ukraine.
The European Land Strategy 2030 itself indicates that there is enough roof surface area to reach the 40% target. However, the current deployment of renewables is being concentrated in the least populated areas of the continent and in peripheral regions, following a model of energy colonialism based on centralized, massive and large-scale megaprojects developed by large companies that occupy territories of sacrifice. In this way, production areas are moved away from consumption areas, giving the European population the false impression that the new renewable infrastructure has no impact.
However, in an international context where food shortages are increasing, agricultural land is being occupied in the slaughter territories that European policies themselves consider necessary to guarantee the supply of the population and to relocate food systems as a decarbonisation strategy.
Habitats of essential species for the proper functioning of ecosystems are also being destroyed following environmental assessment schemes that, among other errors, do not consider the cumulative effects of the concentration of these megaprojects, as dozens of researchers warned in the Spanish case in the magazine Science in December 2020.
In addition, renewable infrastructures consume water. In this way, the current deployment of megaprojects entails greater water stress in areas where available resources are scarce, competing with ecological flows and with other uses such as supply and irrigation, which are of great importance throughout the Mediterranean arch.
On the other hand, it is essential to analyze the role of electrical interconnections as the basis of this development. Through large very high voltage cross-border lines included in the Projects of Community Interest, Europe intends to facilitate the model of megaprojects concentrated in the peripheries, despite the inefficiency of this system. If we take as an example the electrical interconnection between Spain and France through the Bay of Biscay, the European Network of Electricity Transmission Network Operators itself, in the latest update of the 10-year Network Development Plan, recognizes that transmission losses in this centralized model they would be close to 40% of the new renewable energy that they would allow to integrate into the trans-European electricity grid. And in the case of the new interconnections planned between Spain and Europe, these losses would be close to 50%. In other words, one out of every two renewable megaprojects would only contribute to supporting these losses in the form of heat. This serious contradiction must be denounced, especially if we take into account that a photovoltaic panel installed in Warsaw would have an efficiency only 35% lower than the same panel installed in the fertile soils of the Vega de Granada.
Although it would deserve a more detailed analysis, I would like to point out here that the European Strategy for Hydrogen further deepens this perspective of energy colonialism by attempting to use an energy vector that, however, would have an inefficiency of around 90% if it were to be used in the motors of heavy machinery that cannot use electrical energy. In any case, it is not clear that we can use hydrogen since it accumulates serious technological problems that have not yet been resolved, as recognized by Group III of the IPCC.
Finally, in addition to territorial misgovernment and the extractivist design of energy infrastructures, the operation of the European electricity system favors speculation and the dispossession of local populations who are also paying increasingly higher prices for energy. The large companies that dominate the sector in collusion with the institutions divide the communities and despise public participation, leaving the citizens defenseless and also the local entities that seek other forms of development for their territories, including energy self-consumption. In response to this reality, dozens of municipalities in Andalusia (in the south of Spain) have signed a Municipal Legislative Initiative demanding another energy transition.
In fact, among other notable examples of this model, we can mention that of Spain. Here, the renewable production forecasts of the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan for 2030 are 109.5 GW, although current projects exceed 200 GW, well above the current and future consumption of this country. Although according to the new planning of the transport network, the figure could be much higher.
More than 80% of the photovoltaic plants planned in Spain exceed the threshold of 1 megawatt that defines megaprojects, and are concentrated in regions such as Aragón, Galicia, or Andalusia, where more than 1,000 renewable projects are planned.
A paradigmatic place in this region is the territory of Granada and Almería, where 196 photovoltaic projects are planned that could produce 9.16 GW covering some 20,141 hectares, and 38 wind projects that could produce 1.89 GW in some 60,216 hectares. Those 10.95 GW would represent a third of the average electricity consumption in Spain and 10% of the total production forecast for the entire country in 2030. This deployment favored by the Andalusian Government without any territorial planning would affect the important production farming of this territory and the biodiversity associated with its landscapes. Let us not forget that Spain, and in particular Andalusia, is the main agricultural producer in the European Union and one of the most biodiverse places on the continent.
As I have already pointed out, these impacts are generating a growing conflict in the territories to be sacrificed, which are delaying the deployment of renewable energies. EDF’s “Gunaa Sicarú” park on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Mexico) has been canceled by local resistance, the park in the Sami territory of Norway has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court of that country thanks to local resistance, dozens of projects have been canceled in Spain, France or Italy due to citizen pressure. It is therefore necessary that the energy transition be based on a solidarity contribution to decarbonisation, that is, the reduction of consumption, which reduces the gap between the center and the peripheries, and not on a clearly inefficient energy colonialism. I want to finish this text, returning to the motto of the massive social mobilizations held in Spain last year. Renewables yes, but not like this.