SMALL investors in solar power plants claim they are being discriminated against in Spain's energy auctions and are losing their savings because the country 'is wasting the sun'.
A world leader in renewable energy and with an average of 300 days of sun per year, ploughing cash into solar panel parks should have been a no-brainer as far as investment opportunities go – but with subsidies cut and an auction floor price that favours power supplies with the highest output in hours, wind farms are getting the benefits whilst solar investors are actually asking banks to repossess their panels.
According to the National Association for Producers of Solar Energy (ANPIER), investors across the country borrowed up to €23 billion from banks between 2007 and 2008, having been encouraged by Spain to speculate with 'green' power sources.
But although penalties for energy self-sufficiency – dubbed a 'tax on the sun' – did not get off the ground, subsidies dropped by around 30% in 2010 under the then socialist government and fell to just 50% when the right-wing PP gained power in November 2011.
Many small investors have had to remortgage their solar parks or even 'hand back the keys'.
“If the paperwork had included small print covering possible changes in policy, we wouldn't have invested a single cent,” complains ANPIER chairman Rafael Barrera.
Solar panel park owners and shareholders saw a ray of light when Spain announced a 3GW (giga-watt) energy auction in December, but the terms of the tender favoured large companies, and wind over sun.
Solar Media columnist, world expert and former UN energy committee contributor John Parnell says of the floor price: “This will create a situation where projects, wind and solar, will end up in a tie.
“In the event of the (inevitable) tie, the projects with the greatest hours of operation will be selected.
“In other words, in the result of a tie, the biggest wind projects win.”
Parnell's predictions came true, and a second 3GW energy auction in spring carried the same terms and floor price, meaning once again, independent power producers (IPPs) would have not chance of competing on an even playing field.
Parnell, who has extensive experience in renewable energy in the Middle East, says the IPP model is 'yielding impressive results' in the region, but calls Spain 'solar laggards' because of the hurdles the government has thrown in.
“With all these successful systems in place, why would you limit the potential of a tender programme with a floor price and technology-biased bye-laws? […] It undermines the benefits of switching to renewables in the first place.”
Parnell's column in PV Tech considers that effectively barring smaller, and solar, investors from the bidding process by default, Spain is 'restricting the possibility for change' and 'limiting the democratisation of energy' by 'protecting the interests of major utility firms and investors rather than bill-payers'.
To hinder solar investors even more, the terms of the tender mean suppliers of wind power will be allowed to bid further below its benchmark price than those of sun power, putting them at an advantage as they can undercut solar producers.
Technical director of the renewable energy organisation ECOOO, Juan José del Valle, says the auctions were aimed at meeting Brussels' 'green' power targets, but that 'for decades, Spain's energy model has been inadequate'.
“The energy transition [to renewable power sources] cannot be made up as they go along – it has to be carried out in a planned and orderly manner,” Del Valle stresses.
“In environmental terms, it might seem that it doesn't really matter who is behind the changes, as long as we succeed in eliminating fossil fuel and nuclear power,” added Sara Pizzinato, head of Greenpeace's renewables campaign.
“But whilst we're not aiming to see big companies disappearing altogether, we didn't expect that the process would be driven by the five largest electricity boards.
“We need to replace the current, pro-corporate system with one that puts people and financial justice at the cutting edge of the transition.”
With Greenpeace's having shown that energy consumption is largely responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, solar – as well as wind – power is set to become indispensible, but to provide all the electricity needs of a typical Spanish household, eight solar panels would have to be fitted to each and every residential property, says consumer organisation OCU.
Subsidies for householders who choose to buy solar panels rather than rely on the conventional supply have been all but axed and, although the hefty fines for 'unregulated self-sufficiency' were squashed almost at the outset by public pressure, the cost of installing a complete set of solar panels to fuel a home remains prohibitive.
However, those who have done so generally say they have no regrets.
Most have done so out of 'environmental consciousness', albeit with the view to saving money in the long term, and say they have generally saved about 30% on power consumption.
Depending upon power needs and wattage installed, most say they recover their investment in an average of five years, after which they only have maintenance costs – such as batteries – to worry about, which is a fraction of what they would spend on paying bills to a utility company.
Photograph: Protesters in 'prison uniform' with solar panels rail against Rajoy's infamous 'sun tax' (@Solartradex on Twitter)