MARANCHON, SPAIN — The air was bone chilling on a recent afternoon, as blades from dozens of wind turbines lining the ridge cut through a milky sky. Not so long ago, Maranchon was Spain’s largest wind farm, its 104 machines capable of powering a mid-size city.
But today it faces competition, testament to wind energy’s surging growth here and elsewhere. While Spain’s wind industry has had a rocky decade, it still remains Europe’s second biggest wind producer after Germany, and a leading exporter of wind technology.
And as governments continue climate talks in Madrid, experts say wind and other renewable energy sources will be crucial to fight the escalating rise of greenhouse gasses--yet their massive potential remains untapped.
Indeed, a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency set for release Friday (Dec. 13) finds countries must sharply increase their renewable ambitions to meet global warming limits under the Paris climate pact.
“We have a long way to go, and really need to ramp up the speed at which we’re deploying them,” says David Waskow, global climate initiative director at World Resources Institute, referring to renewables and other green sources.
In the tiny village of Maranchon, roughly 160 kilometers northeast of Madrid, the turbines installed more than a decade ago are now an accepted fixture on the landscape.
“At the beginning people were a bit skeptical, they thought they would be noisy and the blades would disturb the birds,” said Mayor Jose Luis Sastre, sitting in a cafe on the town’s main artery, as trucks rumbled past outside.
“Today, the whole town perfectly accepts the the windmills,” Sastre added, “and they are happy because thanks to the revenues that the windmills bring to the municipality, the town has been able to renovate its water systems, sanitation, roads - and not just in the town of Maranchon, which is the district seat, but in five communities that are part of this municipality.”
Jobs and savings
The Maranchon wind farm is one of 300 in Spain owned by energy giant Iberdrola. Together, these and other farms provided nearly one-fifth of Spain’s electricity last year.
Europe-wide, the wind sector generates roughly 300,000 jobs and accounts for billions of dollars in savings from fossil fuel imports, according to Brussels-based trade association WindEurope. But perhaps the most promising markets are in developing countries, with their growing energy demands.
“There is a great opportunity for countries in Latin America, Africa and even Asia to jump the fossil fuel part of development and just go straight to renewables,” said WindEurope’s public affairs chief Ivan Pineda. “Like Africa did by jumping straight to mobile phones, without passing through fixed lines.”
One of the world’s largest power utilities, Iberdrola is also expanding its on- and offshore wind investments elsewhere in Europe and the Americas, debuting in Australia, and building Europe’s largest solar farm, in western Spain.
“We can compete against oil and gas,” said Iberdrola engineer Alonso Soberon of renewables, citing steep cuts in wind and solar production costs over the past decade.
Earlier this month, Iberdrola announced it would phase out its last two coal plants. But it also has gas, and several environment groups accused the Spanish company—along with another, Endesa—of trying to influence the Madrid talks in ways that might dilute emissions-cutting commitments, Agence France-Presse reported.
“It is surprising for Iberdrola to be accused of green washing when in the course of 15 years the company has phased out all its coal-fired and fuel oil power generation capacity,” said Iberdrola spokesman Eduardo Gonzalez by email, noting the company has not only invested heavily in renewables over the past two decades, but also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Missing full potential
Even as wind power grows, opposition to the farms still remains strong in some areas. Environmentalists say badly placed ones can impact some land and marine species.
“Of course, we have to support renewable energies, but considering biodiversity…not only birds, but bats are also being affected,” said Ramon Marti, network director for Birdlife Spain.
While renewables are expected to surge in the coming years, experts say countries are failing to harness their full potential. Offshore wind alone could provide more than 18 times world electricity demand, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
Yet renewable energy “remains well below what is needed to meet global sustainable energy targets,” the agency said in a November report, calling for more ambitious growth targets and support.
That warning also resonates across the European Union, the world’s second biggest wind energy producer after China. The EU’s new Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has vowed to make the region “climate neutral” by 2050.
But Poland and Germany count among the world’s biggest coal consumers, although Berlin announced a growing phaseout over the next two decades. And the EU recently acknowledged it will likely miss its 2030 emissions- cutting targets.
A recent WindEurope report also finds a relatively underwhelming growth in wind energy in the coming years, if current national climate and energy plans are followed.
“Wind energy should be growing rapidly when you consider all the interest in climate change plus the fact the wind is the cheapest from of new power energy production,” WindEurope’s CEO Giles Dickson said in a statement. “But there is real uncertainty about how far it’s going to expand in the next five years.”