The most renewable spring corners nuclear and gas in the Spanish electricity mix | Economy

The most renewable spring corners nuclear and gas in the Spanish electricity mix | Economy
The most renewable spring corners nuclear and gas in the Spanish electricity mix | Economy

The most renewable spring – with wind, with sun and with water, a lot of water – has overturned several maxims that seemed carved in bronze. That of negative prices in the wholesale market: pay to generate; charge for consumption. That of the supposed maximum limit of green energies on the mix total: in April they covered two thirds of the total generation, with daily maximums above 90%. And, also, that of the inflexibility of nuclear power: the electricity companies, due to the minimum prices in recent weeks, have lowered the piston on the seven Spanish reactors as much as they could.

In just one year, nuclear has gone from being the second largest source of electricity – hot on the heels of wind – to being the fourth, after wind, water and the sun. In March, its production fell 14% compared to the same month of the previous year. And in the sum of the third and fourth months of the year, it did not reach 7,000 gigawatt hours (GWh), very little more than in the spring of the confinements. Gas plants, meanwhile, have been relegated to a very discreet fifth place, with the podium entirely occupied by renewables.

“Nuclear companies have discovered that they have a greater capacity for flexibility than was ever thought,” notes Luis Atienza, former president of Red Eléctrica de España (REE), with some sarcasm, who attributes this modulation to an attempt to avoid spills as much as possible. : energy that is left over in some time periods and that ends up being wasted. The reality is that, in many sections of the day in recent weeks, the variable cost of these plants is higher than the market price. In these circumstances, the most rational thing for its owners (Endesa, Iberdrola, Naturgy and EDP) is to take the opportunity to refuel and undertake all maintenance tasks. And—here is the novelty—explore to the maximum all the safe paths that allow modulating its production.

Without precedents

There are several extraordinary circumstances that are causing this unprecedented situation. The rains of recent months, especially in the northwest quadrant – where the large hydroelectric reservoirs are located – have brought hydraulic production to maximum levels and have made this technology the main cause of the depression in prices. Wind energy, for its part, is going through one of its sweetest moments of the year. And photovoltaics—which today is close to 26 gigawatts of installed power, compared to just over four a decade ago—makes the most of the many daylight hours.

“When water coincides with wind power, prices sink overnight; When it coincides with solar energy, it sinks daytime prices,” summarizes Atienza. On the other side of the equation, after the sharp drop in the energy crisis, demand remains at levels very similar to those at the beginning of the century, without putting pressure on generation or prices.

“We had never seen two and a half months of permanent decrease in the nuclear load. Until now, these periods had been much shorter: weekends or holy weeks with minimum prices… But it is a reality that is going to be increasingly common in the coming years,” says Pedro Fresco, author of Energy fakes (Barlin Libros, 2024). He does not believe, however, that its response in recent times can be described as flexibility, “because it cannot respond in minutes, which is what the electrical system truly needs: after a voluntary decrease in power, a nuclear one can take up to 20 hours to return to your usual regime.”

Systems with high renewable penetration, such as the Spanish one, “do not mix well with nuclear,” details Natalia Fabra, professor of Economics at the Carlos III University of Madrid. “Without nuclear, green energy discharges in recent months would be much lower,” she adds while calling for “more flexibility to counteract the intermittency of renewables.” Something that “nuclear weapons are not going to provide.” “It will never be able to provide what pumps and batteries do,” concludes the former head of REE.

Dry braking of combined cycles

The other major victims of the renewable boom are the combined cycles (the plants in which natural gas is burned to obtain electricity), which in the last two months have barely had to make an appearance to meet demand during the hours when that renewables are not enough. With more and more days in which they do not directly appear in the daily auctions of the Iberian Energy Market Operator (OMIE), these plants—fossil and, therefore, polluting—have gone from being essential just two years ago, in the midst of the crisis. energy, to be practically expelled from the mix. Simply because they are not necessary to cover a still languishing demand.

In the coming months, when the hottest phase of summer arrives, no one doubts that both cycles and nuclear plants at full capacity will have to be used to cover the increase in consumption. The situation that is being experienced this spring, on the other hand, fuels a debate that is gaining more and more intensity: what will become of them when the renewable explosion moves to the next stage and both pumps and batteries can, by themselves, provide the flexibility system? In the first case, the nuclear calendar – endorsed by the Government and the electricity companies – points to its gradual closure between 2027 and 2035. In the second, everything will depend on the pace of deployment of clean storage alternatives.

Advance in the closing schedule?

The shock of this spring is such that there are more and more voices that are even betting on an advance. Fresco believes that it is “the right one” and that it can be carried out “without any supply problems”, even with the foreseeable increase in demand that electrification will bring (industry, electric cars, heat pumps…). “But if any electricity company had doubts, they will no longer have them: no one will want to operate at a loss,” he says.

Fabra goes one step further: “It cannot be ruled out that the owners of the plants will be interested in closing them even earlier than contemplated in the calendar.” Not because the Government has decided that way, he says, “but because the numbers are not going to come out directly.”

The position maintained by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition continues to be that of maintaining the closure schedule agreed with the companies, as Vice President Teresa Ribera recalled in December from the climate summit held in Dubai. And, recently, in another interview with EL PAÍS she considered it a mistake that nuclear energy has been given the green label in the European taxonomy. “It is one thing that they do not emit and another thing that they are green,” she explained.

However, there are also some sectors that do advocate the continuity of this technology. Like the College of Industrial Engineers of Madrid, which at the beginning of the month released a note in which they called for “a balanced combination of nuclear energy and renewable sources to ensure a sustainable future.” And they recalled that at the Dubai summit, nuclear was explicitly cited as one of the alternatives that States have to leave behind fossil fuels, the main cause of the climate crisis.

The German case

Spain is a cause of concern for the lobby international nuclear due to the commitment to abandon this technology. Even more so since Germany finally executed its nuclear blackout in the spring of 2023, an exercise in which greenhouse gas emissions fell to historic lows.

In April, when twelve months had passed since the closure of the last reactor in that country, the federal Minister of the Environment, Steffi Lemke (of the Greens), reaffirmed this decision: “One year after the closure of the last three plants nuclear energy in Germany, it is clear that the phasing out of nuclear energy is a win for our country. Especially in times of uncertainty, we can be glad that we have made our country safer.”

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