The photovoltaic sector recorded its best year ever in 2022 with an acceleration of new solar parks, but with an uneven expansion: six regions installed nothing or almost nothing and three concentrated more than three quarters.Last year was a record year for the Spanish photovoltaic sector. The entry into operation of new solar plants accelerated to an all-time high as part of the avalanche of new renewable energy installations that Spain is preparing for in the coming years (decades, in fact) to boost and enable the inevitable decarbonization of its economy.
Last year, Spain installed 4,701 megawatts (MW) of new photovoltaic capacity in ground-mounted plants (not including data from the self-consumption boom), with a growth of almost 25% compared to the 3,500 MW incorporated in 2021, thus consolidating last year as the best in the history of the sector, according to data from the annual report prepared by the Spanish Photovoltaic Union (UNEF).
In the midst of the flood of new solar plants coming into operation, the pace is very uneven by autonomous communities. While last year up to six regions did not install any or almost no new photovoltaic capacity (Madrid, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, the Basque Country and Navarre), there were three that managed to monopolize just over 80% of all the new capacity of parks, with 3,778 MW together.
Extremadura (1,467 MW), Andalusia (1,186 MW) and Castilla-La Mancha (1,125 MW) led the effective deployment of new solar farms in the boom year, and did so by far in relation to the following communities that added new facilities plugged into the grid and started producing: Castilla y León (412 MW), Aragón (307 MW), according to the combined records of UNEF and Red Eléctrica de España, the manager of the Spanish electricity system and the high voltage grid.
Extremadura, Andalusia and Castilla-La Mancha are traditionally the three regions with the largest PV presence (they account for just over 60% of the total accumulated capacity of ground-mounted plants, with 12,532 MW of the total 19,864 MW in Spain at the end of 2022). But last year's acceleration has served to reinforce its leadership and widen the gap.
The national solar sector confirms that the three regions are the ones with the greatest concentration of activity in photovoltaic energy due to their characteristics of greater number of hours of sunshine and the greater extension of rural territory that can be more easily reconverted for energy exploitation. But it is also noted that the administrations of the three regions have long been much more agile than most other regions in the process of processing and promoting the solar business.
The coming avalanche
The accelerated deployment is also continuing this year. According to internal figures handled by the photovoltaic employers' association, this year the sector has deployed some 2,300 MW of new capacity up to August, and UNEF assumes that this figure could"easily" double by the end of the year, which will practically equal the record of the already historic 2022.
Last June, the Government submitted to the European Commission a draft of the update of the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), the Spanish roadmap to promote clean energy and move towards the decarbonization of the economy until 2030. The text, which still has to be endorsed by the EU, envisages the goal of reaching the end of the decade with a total of 57,000 MW of ground-mounted photovoltaic plants, which means installing some 29,600 MW additional to the current capacity and executing investments for 20,700 million euros.
There are currently photovoltaic projects at different stages of maturity in the long administrative process that already exceed the additional capacity required to meet the PNIEC target. Of the total 68,000 MW of renewable projects being prepared in Spain that have already applied for administrative permits and are in the race to obtain them, around 53,000 MW correspond to photovoltaic projects. Not all projects will pass all administrative milestones, in any case, and the sector as a whole still has to overcome grid access problems in saturated areas and the bottleneck that lies ahead for the construction of all projects.
Occupying 0.38% of agricultural land
The boom in new renewables in Spain is encountering a problem of social rejection due to the fear of the neighbors of the impact on the territories of the deployment of all these projects. And the green energy sector is also facing criticism due to the fear that the use of land for solar or wind power plants will lead to a reduction in the amount of land dedicated to agricultural and livestock farming. The UNEF employers' association denies this.
"We have territory. Fulfilling the objectives of the PNIEC does not imply an incompatibility of agricultural uses. If all the necessary projects are carried out to achieve the goals of the plan, it would only be necessary to use 0.38% of all the Spanish agricultural and livestock land. It is possible to continue installing photovoltaics and develop agricultural crops at the same time," stresses UNEF's general director, José Donoso. "Against demagogy, mathematics".
The expansion of self-consumption
Last year's solar boom not only boosted large ground-mounted plants, it also became a reality for self-consumption . The expansion of self-consumption in Spain broke all records last year. In 2022 alone, as much PV self-consumption was installed in the country as in the entire previous history. Renewable companies commissioned facilities across the country with a capacity of more than 2,500 megawatts (MW), more than doubling the previous year's deployment and bringing the total operational capacity in the country to almost 5,250 MW, according to UNEF.
A boom driven last year by skyrocketing electricity prices to record highs and million-dollar subsidies from European funds. But after last year's explosive growth, deployment has now begun to slow down. The photovoltaic employers' association warns of a "dramatic" drop in self-consumption installations in homes, while deployment in industry and commerce continues at a good pace.
According to UNEF's analysis, individuals have lost the perception that electricity prices are still high (they are well below the peaks of the worst of the energy crisis, but also well above the historical average) and the idea has also spread that aid from European funds does not reach the consumer.
The renewable sector warns of a major bottleneck in the processing by the autonomous communities of the more than 500,000 applications for aid, with some regional administrations not moving forward with the requests and generating long delays in the actual distribution of the money, accumulating delays of more than two years until the collection of the subsidy.