Solar’s growing role in the renewable energy mix

As climate change takes its toll on the planet, organisations such as Iberdrola are stepping up to increase the world’s renewable energy output

The road towards decarbonisation

Climate change has become one of the most important issues of our time. The majority of global leaders are now waking up to the threats posed by greenhouse gases – particularly the effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) on the atmosphere.

Troubling data from NASA has emphasised the impact CO2 – as well as other man-made emissions – is having on our planet, with the average surface temperature having risen approximately 0.9 degrees Celsius since the late 19th Century. Other serious consequences of climate change include warming oceans, rising sea levels and shrinking ice sheets, all of which are having a terrible impact on animal populations – and will hit humans next. The need for governments and organisations to take action to prevent global warming has never been more pressing.

One of the ways leading countries are making improvements is by adopting renewable energy, which uses sunlight, wind, rain, waves and geothermal heat to produce power. These technologies not only help to detoxify the air, but also empower people around the world, improving their health and economic prosperity. Further, the development of renewable energy technology will create jobs and promote investment; renewable energy needs to be scaled up at least six times faster for the world to meet the decarbonisation and climate mitigation goals set out in the Paris Agreement according to Irena, the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Politicians in particular are keen to move towards decarbonisation, which involves the reduction or removal of CO2 from the energy mix. The European Commission has presented a strategic vision for a climate-neutral economy by 2050, while the Paris Agreement established specific, cross-country goals to reduce harmful emissions. With new technologies and bold leadership, the future looks promising for renewable energy.

An Iberdrola charging station

The rise of solar – why people are increasingly adopting this technology

One type of renewable technology that has gained widespread interest and acclaim in recent times is solar energy, where photovoltaic technology is used to directly convert sunlight into electricity.

Solar energy boasts numerous advantages. For one, it depends on a source that will not run out for billions of years. What’s more, it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or toxic waste, requires low maintenance and can be used in places that have no access to the electrical grid. Its capacity should not be underestimated, either: according to the World Energy Council, solar energy produced one per cent of all electricity used globally in 2015 (the last year for which data was available) and, according to the International Energy Agency, it’s now the fastest-growing source of new energy.

Countries around the world are continually enhancing their solar capacities, too. In April 2018, Germany managed to meet 12.1 per cent of its energy demand through photovoltaic power installations. In 2017, China proved to be the biggest investor in renewable energy, accounting for almost half of all new infrastructure commissioned, according to the United Nations. Having attracted nearly a fifth more investment than in the previous year, it is clear that China – alongside many other world economies, such as the US, India and Spain – believes in the potential of solar power.

Beijing, China
The night skyline of the Beijing Central Business District, China

A new leader in solar energy

In order to meet the world’s growing demand for renewable energy, global utility Iberdrola has undertaken a number of initiatives to boost wind and solar capacity. Since 2001, the company has invested over €100 billion in renewable energy, networks and storage.

Today, Iberdrola is seeking to enhance its already strong reputation in the sector by working with government agencies, landowners and customers to develop commercial-scale photovoltaic projects. One of the company’s most successful projects has been Copper Crossing, a solar ranch in Arizona that is home to around 66,000 photovoltaic modules and has been vital to promoting renewable energy – particularly solar – in the US.

Iberdrola has also drawn on the help of its subsidiary, Iberdrola México, to build two photovoltaic power stations in Mexico. One of these projects – located in the city of San Luis Potosí – is Iberdrola’s largest photovoltaic power facility to date, capable of converting the wealth of solar radiation found on the Mexican Plateau into electricity through more than 660,000 photovoltaic modules. The power station helps prevent 340,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere each year. Meanwhile, the second plant, which is located in Hermosillo, Sonora, has an installed capacity of 100MW that is generated by 392,940 photovoltaic modules spread across 300 hectares.

These initiatives have been designed to ensure that Mexico can meet the goals set out by the Energy Transition Act, which targets a 35 per cent clean energy mix by 2024.

Beijing, China
The city of Hermosilla in Sonora, Mexico

The role of PPAs – how utility companies and businesses can work together

At the heart of Iberdrola’s current success is the company’s use of power purchase agreements (PPAs). These long-term supply arrangements provide utility companies with greater stability when making investments, while also guaranteeing consumers a reliable supply of power at competitive and predictable prices.

Iberdrola currently has a number of PPAs in Spain, Mexico and the US, including signed agreements with multinational companies. In Mexico, Iberdrola has built wind farms and power plants that boast an installed capacity of 600MW.

Last year, Iberdrola signed a PPA with Spanish telecommunications company Euskaltel to help prevent the organisation from releasing 26,700 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. It also signed a contract with Uvesco to build what is set to be Europe’s largest solar power plant. These partnerships are integral to cleaning up the planet and, as such, Iberdrola hopes to establish many more PPAs moving forward.

A wind farm in Chiapas, Mexico
A wind farm in Chiapas, Mexico

Looking to the future – upcoming solar projects at Iberdrola

Iberdrola is keen to expand its solar projects as much as possible. On March 14 2019, Avangrid Renewables and Puget Sound Energy (PSE) announced plans to develop a 150MW solar project in Washington, known as the Lund Hill Solar Project. The joint venture will be the largest solar project in the state and has been designed to support PSE’s Green Direct programme, which allows people to purchase all of their energy from local renewable energy sources.

The second round offering of PSE’s Green Direct programme has already been fully subscribed to, and will offer a blend of wind and solar power – Avangrid Renewables has invested over $100m into this project as part of a PPA. Lund Hill is expected to begin commercial operation in 2020 and will span around 1,800 acres of land leased from private landowners and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “Solar power is a win-win for the people of Washington,” said Hilary Franz, the Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, when asked about the development. “It generates significant revenue for our schools, while creating jobs and providing clean, affordable energy to our homes and businesses.”

Iberdrola is also set to install its first European photovoltaic plant in Spain. Known as Núñez de Balboa and set for completion in 2020, the plant will boast around 1.5 million panels – amounting to an installed capacity of 500MWp – making it the biggest photovoltaic project under construction in Europe. Once completed, Núñez de Balboa will provide power to roughly 250,000 people and prevent 215,000 tons of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere each year. The project represents an investment of approximately €300m ($339.5m) for Iberdrola, while the energy produced will be marketed through three long-term PPAs with Euskaltel, Kutxabank and Uvesco.

Iberdrola is also progressing with plans to install an additional macro plant in the province of Cáceres. The project, named Pizarro, is expected to become operational in 2022, will occupy an area of 1,300 hectares and will involve an investment of 300 million euros. Pizarro will be financed by Iberdrola, but it is possible that this could change before completion, opening up the project to fresh collaboration in its continued commitment to a system of sustainable energy.

Iberdrola's photovoltaic project in Núñez de Balboa, Spain
Construction progress of Iberdrola's photovoltaic plant in Núñez de Balboa, Spain

A guiding light

In addition to its achievements in the renewable energy space, Iberdrola is renowned for its strong corporate governance. For the fifth year in a row, Iberdrola was named in the Ethisphere Institute’s World’s Most Ethical Companies guide – the only Spanish company to feature in the 2018 rankings. Iberdrola was assessed over five categories, including ethics and compliance, corporate social responsibility, ethical culture, corporate governance and leadership.

A large part of Iberdrola’s growth is down to its commitment to ethical principles, transparency and leadership. For two consecutive years, it has been the only Spanish utility company to be recognised in the 2019 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index – no doubt a result of its egalitarian policies and the opportunities it presents to employees.

Iberdrola’s commitment to an emission-free environment isn’t only beneficial to the company, either: it will also create an estimated 364,000 new jobs between 2021 and 2030. The Spanish utility firm’s dedication to renewables has spanned 20 years and there’s no sign of this abating any time soon – in fact, Iberdrola looks set to expand its horizons even further in the future.

Solar panels in Bavaria, Germany
Iberdrola is a guiding light within the energy sector