Can Spain make Elon Musk's solar energy dream a reality?

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BARCELONA, Spain — While visiting Germany last month, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, proffered unsolicited advice to European leaders.

"Spain should build a massive solar array,” he tweeted on Apr. 4. “Could power all of Europe."

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez promptly responded. “We’re already implementing most ambitious plan towards efficient & sustainable energy system,” he tweeted at Musk. “Come and see. We welcome investors in Spain.”

While prompting 66,000 likes and 10,000 retweets, Musk’s tweet also elicited its fair share of eye-rolling from those who wondered when the Tesla CEO (and Twitter’s likely new owner) had also become a European energy expert.

"For Spain to power all of Europe makes no sense," Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the Jacques Delors Energy Centre in Paris, told Yahoo News

But after Moscow shut off Gazprom’s gas spigot to Poland and Bulgaria last week and threatened to do the same to other countries in the 27-member European Union, Musk’s suggestion has prompted further examination. With European leaders warily assessing their future supplies of cheap gas from Russia, whose coal the EU is already embargoing, it's entirely possible that Spain — where renewable energies, including solar, are being rapidly deployed — may offer a solution.

Elon Musk at the opening of the Tesla gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide, Germany, on March 22.
Elon Musk at the opening of the Tesla gigafactory for electric cars in Gruenheide, Germany, on March 22. (Patrick Pleul/Pool via Reuters)

“His idea is provocative,” Mario Sánchez-Herrero, founder of the nonprofit cooperative Ecooo Energía Ciudadana, told Yahoo News, noting that Spain has vast solar and wind energy potential. Nearly 47% of electricity generated in Spain last year was from renewables, with solar making up almost 14% of that, thanks to huge solar fields and wind farms already in operation.

Dramatically increasing Spain’s production of renewable energy to help power the rest of Europe isn’t a stretch, Sánchez-Herrero said.

“If we occupied one-quarter of Spain’s land” — a chunk that would be the size of Florida — “with just photovoltaics and solar panels, Spain could produce all the energy consumed in Europe,” said Sánchez-Herrero, while adding that it “is absurd” to think Spain would simply convert the vast amount of land required for solar and wind farms. “People live everywhere in Spain,” he noted. Devoting that much land to power generation “is too much. So that’s not the solution.”

While Spain receives far more sunlight than most other European countries, Musk’s idea of singling it out as the continent’s energy savior defies logic, Naomi Chevillard, head of regulatory affairs at SolarPower Europe, told Yahoo News.

“The beauty of solar is its flexibility and versatility,” she said. “We don’t need to concentrate solar installations in just one country but can enhance rooftops, support farming, and protect reservoirs across Europe.”

Representing more than 260 organizations from the solar sector, SolarPower Europe says it hopes that Europe will be generating 1 terawatt of solar energy — enough to power 300 million homes — by 2030 “in order to strengthen the continent’s energy security, achieve our climate goals, and shield Europeans from energy price hikes.”

Rays of light stream from a tower of the Solucar solar park in Sanlucar la Mayor, near Seville.
A tower of the Solucar solar park in Sanlucar la Mayor, near Seville. (Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters)

Another potential snag with Musk’s vision is that Spain, which is geographically closer to Algeria than it is to Germany, is poorly connected to the power grid in most of Europe. Underwater cables are difficult to install, said Sánchez-Herrero, and the rugged underwater topography of the Bay of Biscay between Spain and France presents engineering hurdles and inevitable delays. Running overland cables through the Pyrenees mountain range would present its own obstacles. Seven years and around $1 billion were needed to complete the 40-mile electrical cable from northern Spain to southern France that became operational in 2015.

The biggest impediment to connecting Spain’s energy to Europe, however, has been the French government, which has opted for a much more expensive “nuclear strategy” to curb greenhouse gas emissions and try to achieve energy independence, said Sánchez-Herrero. He lays the blame specifically on Électricité de France (EDF), the utility responsible for running France’s nuclear plants. “Today’s nuclear energy is much more expensive than power from the sun and the wind,” he said. “They don’t want competition from the south.”

Paris-based Pellerin-Carlin, of the Jacques Delors Energy Centre, agrees that French decision makers, swayed by EDF, halted expansion of electrical interconnectedness between Spain and France, resulting in what today is an “electricity traffic jam” between the two countries.

"It was mostly the French government that did not want cheap Spanish electricity to come to France because it would have been bad for the profits of EDF, which sometimes overinfluences French decision making,” Pellerin-Carlin told Yahoo News. (EDF did not respond to a request to comment from Yahoo News.)

But that scenario is changing quickly, he added, and not only because of access to Russia’s gas.

A view of part of the array at the Solucar solar park.
A view of part of the array at the Solucar solar park in Spain. (Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters)

“Now we're in a new situation,” said Pellerin-Carlin. France faces “a big risk of blackouts in winter for the next two to three years.” He points to his country’s aging nuclear plants, the lack of investment in renewables and energy efficiency, and its soaring electricity prices as the reason. “There is an interest now on the French side to make sure that there can be more flow of electricity between France and Spain." However, he added that ramping up electrical connectivity between the two countries will take several years.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the European Union was already on track with goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and slash greenhouse emissions by 55 percent by 2030, largely through investing heavily in solar and wind energy generation. Those plans have only speeded up with Russia’s war on Ukraine, EU sanctions on Moscow, skyrocketing energy costs and increasing uncertainty about fossil fuel supplies. “Climate change is an urgent emergency,” said Sánchez-Herrero, “but it’s going to be the war that spurs rapid change.”

Over the past few years, Spain has been galloping ahead in developing solar capacity, thanks in large part to the country’s second-largest utility, Iberdrola, which has been advancing large-scale renewable projects. In 2020, Iberdrola opened the massive Núñez de Balboa photovoltaic plant in northern Spain, with 1.43 million solar panels spread across 2,470 acres — approximately one-fifth the size of Manhattan. An even larger solar installation, the Francisco Pizarro Project, due to be running this year, will have 590 megawatts of capacity and “will provide clean energy to 375,000 people a year and become the largest photovoltaic plant in Europe,” Xabier Viteri, Iberdrola’s director of renewable energy business, told Yahoo News. But despite the enthusiasm for more renewable energy sources, analysts say the pace of regulatory approval can be glacial — regardless of the country.

“One of the biggest challenges for the deployment of renewable energy is the speed of the permitting process,” said Viteri. “It can take over five or six years to receive permits for a wind or solar project that can then be built in 12 months.”

Solar panels in a cemetery in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, near Barcelona, Spain.
Solar panels in a cemetery in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, near Barcelona, Spain. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

Chevillard agrees. “Permitting is a common obstacle to solar deployment,” she said. “The waiting periods and administrative procedures are unnecessarily burdensome.”

The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is pushing EU member countries to cut through the red tape, requesting that approvals be given within two years. In the meantime, European officials are also looking to promote smaller-scale solutions like putting solar thermal collectors on rooftops to heat water.

“It’s very much underused,” said Pellerin-Carlin, particularly given the many sunny days in Spain. “There is more solar heating in Austria than in Spain,” he added.

This week Spain’s energy minister for the ecological transition, Teresa Ribera, signed a joint letter with energy ministers of Austria, Belgium, Lithuania and Luxembourg calling on the European Commission to make solar rooftops mandatory for all new and renovated buildings, establish an EU Solar Manufacturing Fund and prepare a workforce to implement a large-scale transition to sun power. “The EU can deploy at least 70 million solar rooftops by 2030 in Europe. This will generate 1100 TWh [terawatt-hours] of electricity and create millions of local jobs,” said the letter.

Among those applauding the move are Ecooo’s Sánchez-Herrero and SolarPower Europe’s Chevillard. Elon Musk hasn’t yet publicly responded to the news, though perhaps a tweet is in the works.