Spain's largest wind turbine, Arinaga, a five megawatt, 505-foot tall, is pictured at the end of a dike on Gran Canaria in the Spanish archipelago of the Canary Islands on Oct. 20, 2013.Desiree Martin/AFP/Getty Images
Spain is the first country in the world to draw a plurality of its power from wind energy for an entire year, according to new reports by the country’s energy regulator and wind energy advocacy group Spanish Wind Energy Association (AEE).
Wind accounted for 20.9 percent of the country’s energy last year — more than any other enough to power about 15.5 million households, with nuclear coming in a very close second at 20.8 percent. Wind energy usage was up over 13 percent from the year before, according to the report.
The news is being hailed by environmental advocates as a sign that Spain, and perhaps the rest of the world, is ready for a future based on renewables. But the record comes at the end of a very rocky year for Spain’s renewable energy sector, which was destabilized by subsidy cutbacks and arguments over how much the government should regulate renewable energy companies.
Despite the flaws in Spain’s system, the numbers are promising for green energy fans. The renewable push brought down Spain’s greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent, according to another industry report from Red Electric Espana (REE).
Spain also has one of the largest solar industries in the world, with solar power accounting for almost 2,000 megawatts in 2012. That’s more than many countries but still just a fraction of the energy produced by wind in Spain. In 2013, solar power accounted for 3.1 percent of Spain's energy, according to the AEE report.
By contrast, the U.S. produced only 9 percent of its energy with renewable sources last year, and wind accounted for only 15 percent of that.
But as the world reaches for more renewables, Spain’s record-breaking year is also a cautionary tale.
Going into 2014, it’s unclear how wind will survive steep government cutbacks.
At the moment, Spain heavily subsidizes its renewable energy sector, which costs billions of dollars in a country still in the depths of a financial crisis. When the country tried to raise individual rates for renewables, people complained bitterly and the government backed off, leaving the country with a nearly $35 billion renewable energy deficit.
The idea that renewables can’t survive without heavy subsidies might be cooling off the market in Spain and elsewhere, bringing the future of renewable growth into question. Global investment in renewable energy slipped 12 percent last year, despite the fact that the European Union and the UN have set ambitious energy goals for the next decade.
It remains unclear how the world will meet those goals given the spending-averse climate of most Western governments, but there’s no doubt they’ll be looking to Spain in 2014 to see if it can be done without going broke.