The announcement that leading Spanish electricity utility Endesa is to close its As Pontes power plant, in the northwestern region of Galicia, is an important step forward in the decarbonization of the Spanish energy grid, although it will have enormous economic and social impact on an area already heavily affected by industrial reconversion and dismantling. Eight other coal-fired plants in Spain have announced their closure, and the final two others are due to be closed soon.
Spain’s coal-fired plants are closing because their owners can’t make any money from them because over the last year, the European Union has increased the cost of the emission rights of a ton of carbon dioxide by almost 60%, from €16 to €25, a factor that, combined with the so-called “green cent” in Spain, makes coal-fired power plants significantly more expensive than wind or solar, even without any subsidies. In short, renewables are now cheaper than coal.
Most of Spain’s coal-fired plants were built in the 1970s to take advantage of abundant domestic, but dirty, coal. Back in the day, emissions were seen as a minor problem, one whose consequences were yet to be understood or thought about. Later, in the 1990s, some plants were modified to allow the use of mixes with higher quality coal acquired abroad, a conversion that culminated two decades ago, when brown coal was finally abandoned, spelling the closure of many mines.
The As Pontes thermal power plant is one of the most polluting in Europe. More than €200 million has been spent on trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and yet it is still unprofitably dirty. Extending the life of loss-making plants in order to save jobs is unsustainable, and even more so when the side effects have led us into a climate emergency that could spell the end of humanity.
Few governments relish the prospect of strikes, riots and unemployment due to the closure of a company, but we have to understand what underlies these closures: we have simply run out of time and cannot afford to continue polluting the atmosphere so as to maintain a polluting activity. The reasoning of “but they do in other countries “, or “other activities also pollute” is just wrongheaded: all emissions go to the same atmosphere of the same planet, the one we all live on, and kill us all. The point here is to show some leadership, to encourage other countries to join us in reducing emissions.
We’ve run out of excuses and deadlines: we must stop generating electricity by burning fossil fuels now, even if this entails the loss of jobs and wealth. An “orderly” decarbonization is a euphemism for “let’s keep on contaminating the atmosphere for a few more years.” We’ve gone past “orderly” and we’re now in a climate emergency. This is no longer an economic issue. We cannot take one step back. We can — and should — reconvert our industries: build wind farms solar panels or any other activity capable of generating employment, but we can no longer protect jobs at the expense of the environment.
As some US politicians know, greening and decarbonizing the economy can create jobs. But efforts in this regard are still being resisted, because it is profits, not jobs that are at stake for vested interests. We no longer have the option of delaying reconversion: we have to do it whether we like it or not. Rarely in history has reconversion been based on such powerful arguments. Opposing is not even about fighting progress: it is fighting our very survival.
Date: Sep 30, 2019