According to figures that Red Eléctrica de España (REE), the national power grid operator, advanced to EL PAÍS, the country has dramatically reduced its reliance on coal-fired power, and as a direct result, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from electricity generation fell 33.3% in 2019.
It is said that Spain has taken one year to reach a goal that was expected to require a decade. Namely, the government had predicted that by 2030 coal would no longer be used in power plants to generate electricity.
For decades, coal-powered thermal plants have been one of the main sources of electricity. Yet, in 2019 Spain retained from using fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide- a primary greenhouse gas- contributing to global warming.
Coal mining in Spain came to an end on January 1, 2019, when Spain stopped providing state aid to its floundering coal mines in observance of European Union regulations and due to the poor profitability of national coal deposits.
Nevertheless, it was expected that Spanish thermal plans that use imported coal – located along the coast and have coal shipped in – would continue operating for some years to come. Owners of such mines had invested millions of euros in adapting to the new EU standards on polluting emissions that came into effect this year.
It is said that coal-fired electricity dropped dramatically in 2019 to its lowest point since REE began keeping records in 1990. Last year coal-powered thermal plants contributed less than 5% of all electricity generated in Spain; that is 85.6% less than in 2002, when coal power was at its peak.
What is more, there were five days in December (14, 21, 22, 24 and 25) when Spain did not need any coal-powered electricity at all.
According to the expert group Carbon Tracker, the owners of these Spanish plants were expected to lose €992 million by the end of 2019.
There are many reasons why it is no longer financially profitable for electricity companies to maintain thermal plants. One of the main reasons is the EU emissions trading system, the world’s first major carbon market.
After nearly 15 years, the EU agreed to set a price for releasing carbon dioxide that was high enough to discourage the use of this fossil fuel. During 2019, the price of a ton of CO2 was €25, meaning that in many European countries coal-fired electricity is not as profitable as other options like natural gas or renewable energy.
The drop in the cost of natural gas and the introduction of renewable energy have also contributed to the fall in coal-powered electricity.
Green energy installations jumped by 10% in 2019. According to REE, 36.8% of the country’s electricity came from renewable energy sources, and 58.6% was free of carbon dioxide emissions- from both renewable and nuclear power.
Thanks to this, the Spanish power sector released just over 43 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 – 33.3% less than the 64.5 million tons released into the atmosphere in 2018.
Adding to this, the demand for natural gas in Spain has closed with an estimated 14% increase in 2019 compared to last year, reaching 398 TWh, the highest figure since 2010, according to data provided by Spanish LNG terminal operator Enagas.
This increase has been mainly attributed to a high demand of natural gas for electricity generation and for greater industrial consumption. The demand for natural gas for electricity generation has grown by around 80% in 2019 compared to 2018, reaching 111 TWh, also the highest figure since 2010.
This sharp increase occurred mainly due to a greater participation of natural gas in the thermal gap against coal -in a context in which natural gas prices are more competitive- and to a low hydraulic generation this year.
The power sector accounts for 17% of the Spanish economy’s carbon dioxide emissions. The fall in coal-powered plants is expected to be reflected in a global fall in carbon dioxide emissions for 2019.
Last year’s figures on the transportation sector, such as cars and trucks, contributed 27% of greenhouse gases in 2018, and industry, which contributed 19%, have yet to be released. In recent years, the drop in power plant emissions has been compensated by the rise in transportation emissions.