Cultures of energy undergraduate fellow Emily Hughes on solar energy in Spain

Posted by on Aug 16, 2013

Social Effects of Spanish Photovoltaic Solar Energy: Potential conflicts and how they can be resolved

            During the concluding panel of Rice University’s 2nd Annual Cultures of Energy Symposium, guest speakers and attending Rice faculty discussed the future direction of their ‘energy in the humanities’ initiative. Of the items they mentioned, there were two themes that stuck with me: integration and outreach. The first refers to the integration of the humanities and social sciences into the realm of other energy sciences and energy policy-making. The second refers to local outreach trips necessary to improve the teaching of energy-humanities and also to community outreach goals that encourage members of the program to help political and industrial leaders work through regional energy issues.

With the plenary discussion in mind, I felt it relevant to see if this integration and outreach had worked with energy issues elsewhere. I chose to analyze the case of renewable energy in Spain, focusing specifically on their solar energy sector. Have they integrated humanistic concerns into their energy policy? What has been the social response to the implementation of photovoltaic solar energy systems? Have potential social effects of these systems been addressed, and if not how can they be addressed? How could energy initiatives such as the Cultures of Energy work to resolve or eliminate potential disputes between the public and the government/corporation that is implementing these new technologies?

Why Solar? Why Spain?

Solar power is one of the most clean and attainable renewable energy options. As Pasqualetti notes, “although no country generates more than a fraction of its electricity from solar energy, many people believe in its future and want to take better advantage of its many attributes…it is unlimited and clean…[and] produces neither greenhouse gases nor long-term wastes” (217). It makes sense that people would try and harvest power directly from the source of Earth’s energy supply; however, production and implementation have not gone without their fair share of problems, both scientific and social. The technology is still in its development phase and costs often seem overly expensive, despite their potential long-term financial and environmental benefits. For instance, in choosing to use solar energy technologies, it is likely that people have some measure of environmental awareness, which transfers to other aspects of energy consumption. With this awareness and conservative consumption, people could reduce their green house gas emissions and monthly electricity bills significantly.

The European Union (EU) has made great strides in encouraging the use of renewable energy technologies. In 2009, the EU adopted a climate and energy package alongside its 2008 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% (as compared to its 1990 levels) by 2020 (Gracia et al. 784). Earlier that decade, in 2005, Spain launched its Renewable Energy Plan, which aimed to have 12% of its primary energy generated from renewable energy sources: wind power, hydroelectricity, solar power, biomass, and biogas/biofuels (San Cristóbal 500). I chose to focus on Spanish solar power specifically because of its potential in the region. It is likely that the Spanish government has been in great support of the increase of renewable energy production for two reasons: import costs and location. In recent years, Spain has relied on foreign imports for 80% of its total energy and 99.5% of its oil (San Cristóbal 500); consequently, having various local energy sources would greatly benefit their national economy. In addition to financial incentives, geographical location also increases the potential for renewable energy implementation.  Spain’s geographic location and climate patterns are keys to their potential success, especially with regard to solar energy (Gracia et al. 785 and Heras-Saizarbitoria et al. 4686). It has been noted that the, “Spanish PV energy sector has become well-known throughout the world, owing to the sharp increase experienced in its installed capacity [in the last ten years]” (Heras-Saizarbitoria et al. 4687), though the financial crisis starting in 2007 likely hurt industry expansion. If the economy were in better condition, Spain would have the capacity to implement solar power technologies with more success than any other European country. From a technological and geographical standpoint, there is a great chance that these technologies will continue to develop and advance in the region. Additionally, once the economic situation improves, the government will be more likely support the solar power and renewable energy industry to decrease import dependency and, in turn, bolster the national economy.

In the future, once the solar power industry is established and secure with the help of government support, technological innovation, and public energy conservation, Spain will be able to use its own natural resources to meet the energy needs of the people. However, as was discussed briefly in the Cultures of Energy Symposium, one cannot assume that all societies that are being affected by these new renewable energy technologies will immediately accept their construction or their effects on local energy supply. Public response to the implementation of solar energy in Spain is a perfect example of potential social challenges. Corporate and government developers often have to address community resistance when they are imposing new forms of energy production and disrupting traditional energy consumption patterns. Local community acceptance is just as important to the development of solar power technology as scientific research and financial support, though it is often overlooked during the planning process. The following section will elaborate upon specific examples from the Spanish solar energy case and discuss ways in which developers can integrate social factors into their solar power plans.

Public Response and Acceptance: Finances and Community Involvement

Communities are most affected by the financial commitments that come along with changing to renewable energy sources. One important, and highly criticized, aspect of solar energy in Spain is, “that public incentives are crucial elements for its survival” (Heras-Saizarbitoria 4691). Because people have to be financially motivated to support the shift in energy production, and because this is a crucial part of the industry, social consequences should most definitely be taken into account. Thankfully, a survey in 2006 demonstrated that 90% of Spaniards agreed that renewable energy should have a minimum basic quota in the energy generation mix and that, “50% of those interviewed mention that they consider [solar power technology] to be the best option” (Heras-Saizarbitoria 4689).  This public support is essential to the financing of Spanish solar energy. On the other had, one study from Zaragoza, Spain found that solar energy could be financed via market prices and not by increasing individual energy bills, which would be more appealing to consumers despite their supposed support of solar energy (Gracia et al. 791). Social support generates the financial incentives necessary and enables this incorporation into the market.

Informing the public about the environmental benefits of solar energy can increase that support and funding and decrease social resistance to the new technologies. While it may take longer for solar power plants to be worth the cost, if communities were aware of their non-financial benefits than there would likely be less conflict about their implementation. With education and community outreach as a part of the PV solar power development process, Spanish communities, many of whom already support the industry, will be more willing to finance the operations and adapt to the change in energy consumption. Another form of community outreach and public integration into the new solar technological movement is the creation of job opportunities. Thus far, however, the press has claimed that it has been, “calculated that in Spain 2.2 jobs were destroyed for every ‘green job’ created by solar, wind, and hydroelectric power producers” (Heras-Saizarbitoria 4692). In the still ongoing economic crisis in Spain, this employment rate is not likely to inspire social support. However, in a study on PV energy in Southern Spain, the industry created 4500 jobs, a number that was likely to increase with future acceptance of solar technologies (Castro et al. 94). If solar energy corporations and government sponsors were able to create a greater number of jobs, than community involvement in and understanding of the projects would increase, which would then impact local acceptance of solar energy production as a whole.

Including the community into the production process by increasing job opportunities and providing more information would further enhance local acceptance of the solar project and its benefits. One research study on grid-connected PV buildings in Southern Spain notes that, “the initial take-off of this technology…not only depends on the technical solutions available on the market but also on the regulations controlling the relationships between utilities and their customers, especially regarding aspects such as the price of the PV energy sold to the grid” (Castro et al. 88). Clearly pricing is a significant factor when people are considering purchasing solar technologies or when people are simply forced to accept their installation. It would be useful to inform the public about the long-term benefits of these technologies because immediate prices may be high. For instance, in the case of Montseny Natural Park in northern Spain, “public incentives can greatly modify the preferences of users…even though PV systems were more expansive…they were cheaper for the final users because of the subsidies” (Munda and Russi 724). Long-term, the PV solar power technology purchases paid off, but it is important that the public is made aware of the ultimate payback patterns. Because the financial and environmental benefits may take years or decades to be seen, it would be useful to frame these benefits for the user, whether they chose to purchase the technology or whether it was purchased by their community. Describing the specifics of the operation, cost, and end results for each community would increase acceptance and even result in public support.

Public Response and Acceptance: Landscapes and Reliability

Being specific when describing cost benefits speaks to the individually and collectively focused mindset of local communities. In a general analysis of renewable energy and solar power, Pasqualetti observed that, “impacted people need to perceive and receive meaningful and acceptable benefit from developments that are proposed for the landscapes they value” (220). While overarching environmental concerns can motivate many to accept new energy technologies, concerns about one’s local landscape and community are likely to have more of an influence on social acceptance. Additionally, “neither acceptance of nor opposition to a technology in one location will necessarily transfer to another location…support or opposition to renewables will depend less on the type of resource than on how one location differs from another in terms of physical environment, cultural underpinnings, and social structures” (Pasqualetti 219). Negative effects on local landscape, both environmentally and culturally, would quickly deter the public from adopting solar technology. What is deemed significant for a community and its surrounding area will vary from case to case, and this variability needs to be addressed accordingly. The government and corporations attempting to implement solar power production would have more success if they tailored their objectives and intended results to the local people and landscape. Community outreach and integration into the production process, through education about the technologies, creation of local jobs, and specific descriptions framed to address the local context, would inspire local support far more effectively than global goals and results.

Another important factor in gaining public support is an emphasis on reliability and comfort. People need to be reassured that they will have access to enough power to meet their daily needs. In the Montseny case, solar technologies with less power capability were installed in the local homes and businesses, which resulted in much conflict: “Had 40.6 kWp of PV been installed, the level of comfort that the owners and inhabitants would have enjoyed would have been comparable to the one possible by means of grid electricity” (Munda and Russi 720). In order for solar power to be accepted on a local and national level in Spain, people need to be reassured that they are getting what they pay for – available and accessible means of getting their electricity. If this reliability were established, there would likely be less national resistance and local contestation. As social acceptance increases on the local level, solar energy technology’s popularity would spread to the national level and potentially even to the international level for those countries that can support solar power. This would also be done with the help of the media. Once regional news, national news, popular magazines, etc. publish positive reaction to solar power implementation in certain locations, others will likely follow in suite and a larger support system will develop. In the case of Spain, and likely in other countries experiencing similar energy shifts, the transition from local acceptance to national acceptance is a gradual and multi-faceted process.

***

Prior to the economic downturn, Spain seemed to have a promising outlook on the spread of its solar energy industry. Though the financial crisis has impeded its production, they still have the capacity to eventually establish themselves as a model for renewable energy use, especially if they approach the projects with the social factors in mind. Clearly, incorporating social concerns into the planning process would be beneficial to the installation and local acceptance of these new technologies, which would in turn increase their popularity and national uptake. Community outreach through education and job creation would also help with social acceptance of the projects and minimize any potential disputes. If framed to address the concerns of the local landscape, there would be minimal public resistance to the projects. When people are comfortable with the economic and environmental value of the technologies, along with their reliability, Spanish solar power can positively shift national energy production and consumption patterns. Other regions, and eventually other countries, will be able to learn from the example of more local experiences with solar energy. Through social integration and local outreach, Spanish solar power has the potential to start a chain reaction in which its success is at first local, then national, then global.

Works Cited

Castro, M., A. Delgado, F.J. Argul, A. Colmenar, F. Yeves, J. Peire. “Grid-connected PV

buildings: analysis of future scenarios with an example of Southern Spain.” Solar Energy 79.1 (2005): 86-95. Scopus®. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.

Gracia, Azucena, Jesús Barreiro-Hurlé, Luis Pérez y Pérez. “Can renewable energy be financed

with higher electricity prices? Evidence from a Spanish region.” Energy Policy 50 (2012): 784-94. Scopus®. Web. 27 Apr. 2013

Heras-Saizarbitoria, Iñaki, Ernesto Cilleruelo, Ibon Zamanillo. “Public acceptance of renewables

and the media: an analysis of the Spanish PV solar experience.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 15 (2011): 4685-96. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Munda, Giuseppe, Daniela Russi. “Social multicriteria evaluation of conflict over rural

electrification and solar energy in Spain.” Environment And Planning C: Government And Policy 26.4 (2008): 712-27. Scopus®. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

Pasqualetti, Martin J. “Social Barriers To Renewable Energy Landscapes.” Geographical Review

101.2 (2011): 201-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.

San Cristóbal, J.R. “Multi-criteria decision-making in the selection of a renewable energy project

in Spain: The Vikor method.” Renewable Energy 36.2: 498-502. Science Citation Index. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.