The great drought threatens to once again cause a shake-up in electricity generation in Spain. After a historically bad 2022 for hydropower in the Spanish market, there was an ephemeral truce of production increases in the winter months, but now the lack of rainfall is once again having a direct impact on the generation of hydroelectric plants.
The heavy rainfall during the last weeks of last year and the first weeks of the current year, almost punctual in the end, meant that in the first quarter of the year the production of hydroelectric power plants recorded increases after last year's slump. Between January and March, hydroelectric generation was 66% higher than in the same months of the dismal 2022, but the recovery seems to be only temporary.
With winter over, hydropower has broken the trend andwaterfalls have begun to record productiondrops compared to last year, with declines of 15% in April (with 1,531 gigawatt hours, GWh) and 31% in the first half of May (with 754 GWh), according to records from Red Eléctrica de España (REE), the manager of the electricity system and the high-voltage transmission grid. The persistent drought threatens to maintain the falls in generation.
The electricity sector and the Government itself avoid making forecasts on the volume of hydroelectric generation during the coming months and even less during the year as a whole, given the special dependence of this type of installations on the evolution of the always uncertain rainfall records, although the forecasts do not predict heavy rains in the medium term and in a stable manner. From the energy companies, however, it is openly feared another down summer and another bad year as a whole for hydropower, after the dismal 2022.
At the moment, Spanish reservoirs continue to empty week after week and now only have reserves of just 48% of their total capacity (compared to almost 69% of the average of the last decade at this time), according to data made public by the Ministry for Ecological Transition with its weekly hydrological bulletins.
The current reserve of the reservoirs destined specifically to hydroelectric production is greater than all the Spanish water reserves, with a filling of 66.6% of its capacity, which also accumulates continuous declines for months and are well below the average of the last decade (78.1%) and the last five years (72.7%).
A record negative 2022
2022 was a historic year for hydro. Historically bad. Hydroelectric power plants sank their production, weighed down by the drought, setting a new negative record. Hydropower generated just 17,900 gigawatt hours (GWh) in all of 2022, 40% less than the previous year and the worst record in the entire historical series of more than three decades of Red Eléctrica de España (REE), the manager of the electricity system.
Last year, the collapse of hydroelectric power was compounded by other factors that caused a shift in the distribution of technologies to generate electricity and pushed the electricity system to hook into fossil fuels. In addition to the drought, for months the contribution of wind power has been much lower than expected, with accumulated falls until the final stretch of the year, and electricity exports to France and Portugal soared to record highs due to the problems of the neighboring countries themselves (with half of the French nuclear power plant shut down and the collapse of Portuguese hydroelectric production also due to the drought).
The result was that electricity utilities fired gas last year to produce all the electricity needed to meet demand. Gas-fired plants raised their electricity production by 53% during 2022, to 68,183 GWh, according to REE data. Combined cycle plants thus became the main electricity generation technology in the country, accounting for almost a quarter of all the energy produced (24.7% of the total) and beating nuclear and wind power.
And the coal-fired plants still in operation, on the way to total blackout, also increased their production by 56%, to 7,797 GWh, the highest figure in the last three years, taking advantage of the high electricity prices on the wholesale market, which has allowed them to become profitable again at times.
A turnaround in power generation that caused the electricity system to break a trend of four consecutive years of reduced CO2 emissions and that had led to record lows in the last three years. During 2022, electricity companies caused the emission of 44.5 million tons of CO2 equivalent with their generation plants, a sharp increase of 24% over the previous year.