By William Mathis, Bloomberg
Struggling to end their reliance on expensive fossil fuels for power generation, Spain’s Canary Islands are set to become a test bed for the latest technology in wind energy.
The islands situated more than 600 miles south of the Iberian peninsula have limited space for renewables such as solar and wind farms, and the surrounding waters quickly become too deep for traditional offshore foundations. One solution is making wind turbines that float, a pioneering technology with the potential to deploy electric generation plants beyond the sight of tourists on the beach.
The Norwegian energy giant Equinor ASA has plans for a floating wind project in the Spanish archipelago, while pilot designs are underway in France, Scotland and Portugal. Those developments are part of a broader effort to unlock new sources of energy for small islands, which face some of the most devastating effects of climate change but lack the space to make easy changes.
“Land is not available, and what is available is protected,” said Alexandra de Marichalar, head of energy advisory and innovation for consultancy Enzen in Spain. “Offshore renewables are the only way for the Canary Islands to achieve renewable energy penetration targets.”
The work highlights Spain’s effort to decarbonize its economy, which is under scrutiny this week as envoys from more than 200 nations meet in Madrid at the annual United Nations talks on global warming. Spain is under pressure to act to reach European Union targets and meet the pledges set out for the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
Renewable power sources fed about 11% of the Canary Islands’ electricity in 2018, compared with about 40% in Spain’s mainland, according to the country’s grid operator. While the climate is sunny and there’s plenty of wind on the Canaries, the limited land surface holds back the installation of large renewable power installations.
Enzen, along with a local government and water authority, is working to jump-start the industry with a 5-megawatt floating wind turbine off the coast of the island of Lanzarote. The company is working with the local government and is in the process of financing the 15 to 20 million-euro ($17-22 million) project that will help power a water desalination plant in Arrecife by 2023.
If effective, the project could be scaled up. There are more than 300 desalination plants throughout the islands, and those could benefit from similar direct power-purchase agreements, de Marichalar said.
It could also make the Canaries a proving ground for developing renewables. The project will also include 2 megawatts of energy generated by waves from Bombora Wave Power. Similar technology has struggled to become cost competitive with other renewable energy sources elsewhere.
“People wonder, ‘Why are you still burning oil here with this exceptional renewable energy potential?,’” said Gonzalo Piernavieja Izquierdo, technical coordinator at Canary Islands Institute of Technology. “What we are selling to the world is a vision that the Canaries are a laboratory for testing energy technologies.”
While turbines that attach to the seabed have plunged in price in recent years, floating platforms are still in development and are much more expensive than other sources of power. That makes it nearly impossible for the new technology to compete without steep government subsidies.
In the Canaries, all competing energy options are just as expensive. Imported fuel prices can be as high as 200 euros per megawatt-hour, more than triple the national average in 2018. The Spanish government pays a subsidy to the islands to help residents get power closer to mainland prices.
While the islands are a relatively small market, they have a goal to produce 310 megawatts of power from offshore wind by 2025. Equinor wants to build a 200-megawatt floating wind development off the coast of the archipelago, but that project is in limbo due to regulatory issues.
“It’s bridging the gap between what we’re seeing with a couple demonstration projects and what’s the next step,” said Imogen Brown, a wind analyst at BloombergNEF.
Lead: Illustration of Equinor’s proposed floating wind farm, the Hywind pilot park off the coast of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Credit: Equinor