• Construction is completed and testing is underway on a huge photovoltaic installation in Spain.
  • The solar plant will supply emissions-free electricity to a quarter of a million people.
  • The Núñez de Balboa project could reduce annual CO2 emissions by more than 200,000 tonnes.
  • Investment and capacity is set to increase significantly in coming decades.

It covers an area equivalent to 1,200 football pitches and is the biggest of its kind in Europe. The huge Núñez de Balboa solar power project is the latest addition to Spain’s growing renewable energy sector.

The site in western Spain houses more than 1.4 million solar panels, capable of producing 500 megawatts of installed capacity when fully operational – enough power to supply clean energy to 250,000 people. Energy harvested from the sun’s rays travels to a substation along a network of 2,000 kilometres of electrical cables, to service local homes and businesses.

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Spain’s latest solar megaproject covers 10 square kilometres.
Image: Iberdrola

With construction completed, Spanish power company Ibersola’s new solar plant is undergoing testing with grid operator Eléctrica de España (REE), ready for operations to begin in 2020.

Clean energy from the 10 square kilometre site could cut an estimated 215,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year. That’s the equivalent of removing around 45,000 cars from Spain’s roads.

Panel power

The project’s status as the biggest of its kind in Europe could be shortlived, however, as the solar sector continues its rapid growth.

Research by SolarPower Europe says 2019 was among the best years ever for European solar, with EU countries adding 16.7 gigawatts of capacity - twice as much as was added in the previous year. Spain was the largest solar market in Europe that year.

Energy prices from renewables like solar power and wind farms are falling fast, as technical advances and efficiency gains increase their competitiveness.

As the subsidies that once characterized European solar projects are largely a thing of the past, cost-conscious developers are increasingly exploiting economies of scale by building bigger and more efficient plants. For example, the Francisco Pizarro project is a 590 megawatt solar plant in Spain, which will be bigger than Núñez de Balboa when completed in 2022.

environment renewable solar energy change transition friendly environment carbon footprint carbon emissions reduction change natural climate change global warming air pollution clean energy power renewables
In 2018,102.4 gigawatts of PV capacity were added globally.
Image: Statista

Global boom

The situation in Europe is mirrored around the world.

Solar PV could cover a quarter of global electricity needs by 2050, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency - with benefits for more than just the planet. The solar industry could employ over 18 million people by that point.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The growing cost competitiveness of renewables is a vital component in their meteoric take-up, but there is another cost that’s growing in significance. As the climate crisis deepens, the environmental cost of burning fossil fuels is adding to the attraction of emissions-free energy from solar power, wind farms and other renewable sources.

But renewables have different characteristics to traditional power sources, like oil or coal, and a rethink of our energy systems is needed to accommodate their growth.

Investment in smart electricity networks and electricity storage solutions will be crucial to provide power when there is no wind or sunshine - and to maximize the potential of sustainable options in tomorrow’s energy mix.