Canary Islands: Oil or PV?

Spain’s biggest oil company Repsol, headquartered in Madrid, is due to begin explorative deepwater drilling off Lanzarote and Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands in northern Africa.

The company believes the Canary Islands fields may contain up to 2.2 billion barrels of oil and is therefore investing about €7.5 billion to explore the sites. If Repsol estimates prove correct, the Canary oil wells could supply about 10% of Spain’s oil needs.

Drilling off the Islands are not viewed positively by island inhabitants, however, who believe the islands’ wealth lies rather in their climate, sky, surrounding sea and the archipelago’s extraordinary biodiversity and landscape. Canary Islands President Paulino Rivero said that "oil is incompatible with tourism and a sustainable economy."

In fact, the local Canary Islands government was planning a referendum on the issue on November 23 when voters would be asked: "Do you believe the Canaries should exchange its environmental and tourism model for oil and gas exploration?" The Spanish government has banned the referendum, however, which Rivero calls colonial-style behavior and one that exposes a huge weakness in the policy-making system.

Spain’s government from its side has argued that the Canary oil fields are a chance the country cannot miss to fill its energy resources gap, generate power cheaply and thus increase its industry competitiveness. It is for these reasons, it says, that after years of delays by successive governments it has issued licences for conventional and unconventional exploration.

Repsol, which enjoys close ties with Mariano Rajoy’s government, has said planned drilling would respect the environment and the company has set up an €80 million contingency fund for compensation in the event of accidents.

Canary and Balearics PV: A joke?

Despite where one stands on the argument, it is a shame that the sun-drenched Canary Islands rely almost entirely on fossil fuels for power.

According to statistics published by Spain’s electricity grid operator Red Eléctrica de España (REE), of the 3,195 MW of installed capacity in the Canary Islands at the end of 2013, solar PV accounted for a mere 165 MW and wind power 153 MW. In contrast, fuel and gas plants and combined cycle plants have 1,918 MW and 920 MW of intalled power capacity, respectively.

The situation in the Balearic Islands is no different. Of the 2,490 MW of installed power capacity, solar PV and wind made up a tiny 78 MW and 4 MW, respectively. Dirty coal provides the Balearics 510 MW of capacity.

Earlier this year, the world celebrated the news that El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Islands, with a population of 10,000, would become the first island to be fully powered by a hybrid wind and hydro plant when it becomes operational by the end of 2014. This is a valuable European Union funded project but the reality is dire and remains as depicted by the REE statistics.

Future plans: a glimpse of hope allowed?

It is currently unclear whether the Spanish government wants to change this or not. A slight hope has recently emerged. Pedro Palencia, energy policy director at the Spanish Photovoltaic Union (UNEF), told pv magazine that the government has revealed it is going to auction new power capacities for the Canary Islands. "The government has published the auction framework but not exact details, such as what power mix they plan to auction or the auction date," Palencia said.

UNEF hopes the Canary Islands power auction will allow for a substantial percent of photovoltaics, which is a rational choice given the region’s vast sun resource, added Palencia, adding that new renewable plants in the Canary Islands would need to comply with the latest energy policies introduced in the summer.

According to these, public subsidies for new photovoltaic plants will only take the form of a premium adding to the revenues investors make from the power market. This premium, Palencia told pv magazine, aims to compensate developers for parts of their investment, so it is not market-based. Obviously, Palencia said, the lower bid in the auction will win.

An additional glimpse of hope stems from a Red Eléctrica de España announcement at the end of October that it has begun environmental and geophysical research in the Bocaina Strait, between the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, for a new submarine electricity interconnection between the towns of Playa Blanca and Corralejo.

Currently, there is a 66 kV and 14.5 kilometer-long submarine cable between Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, which was put into service in 2005. However, REE aims to install a new 132 kV link, which will allow it to achieve "a more stable and robust electricity system" and "also favor the integration of renewable energy into the electricity system of the islands," REE says.

It now remains to be seen whether common sense prevails or next time you holiday on the islands you’ll also see tankers carrying oil to power the islands’ dirty plants.