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Spaniards seek alternative energy sources as crisis worsens

As Spaniards look towards winter, many are worried about how they will keep warm so interest in alternative forms of energy is at a premium.

Wood burning pellet heaters are proving popular as are cheaper solar panels which can be fixed to houses. Taking shorter showers and wearing more jumpers are hot topics.

Javier Díaz, president of the Spanish Biofuel Association, said there had been a 40% rise in the installation of biofuel heaters since 2021.

“There has been a tremendous rise in the number of boilers or stoves that use solid biofuels such as pellets or wood chips,” he told Euronews.

“The pellet heater factories cannot make them fast enough because demand is so high. They are working round the clock.”

Diaz added: “There was a move away from fossil fuel energy sources before the present energy crisis but now there is a boom.”

Analysts believe that’s in part due to the European energy crisis and the prospect of shortages if Russia further cuts gas supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

As part of the European Union’s push to wean itself off Russian gas, the Spanish government brought in new measures to save energy usage, from limiting heating in public buildings to 19 degrees Celsius or restricting air conditioning to no lower than 27 degrees Celsius and turning off lights in public buildings and shop windows.

Madrid has also cut the VAT tax from 21% to 5% on gas along with other energy sources like firewood, briquettes and pellets until December 31.

Spain and Portugal agreed with the European Commission in June to implement a new system to limit the price of gas and coal used in power generation, temporarily subsidising fossil fuel plants’ power costs.

The so-called ‘Iberian cap’ resulted in a saving of 24.4% in the average family’s power bill in the summer, according to a study by Esade Business School based in Barcelona.

Despite these measures, a long drought has limited hydro-electric output so power plants burned twice as much gas in August as in the same month a year ago, pushing Spain’s overall gas usage 4% higher, said grid operator Enagas.

Even in a country which is blessed with an average of 300 days of sunshine every year, temperatures plunge to below freezing in some parts of the country when winter draws in.

Keen to avoid paying excessive energy bills or being left without any heating at all, Spaniards are preparing for the worst.

Waiting lists of up to nine months to buy wood pellets were reported last week by El Correo, a regional newspaper, as people feared shortages.

The stoves have mounted in popularity in the last decade: in 2021, there were 75,832 fire burners installed compared to 10,000 in 2009, according to the Biofuel Observatory.

Spaniards mainly live in flats rather than houses so often it is not possible to install these types of burners in cities because buildings lack chimneys for the smoke to escape. In rural areas or in family houses they are more practical.

Díaz claims these alternative types of heating have the advantage that they do not cause emissions which will damage the environment.

“The pellets have been treated so that they are neutral in emissions,” he said.

But conservationists are divided on this matter, with some supporting the use of wood pellets while others claim it causes more pollution than fossil fuels.

“It is a sustainable solution to heat houses because it eliminates fossil fuels from the energy mix,” said Miguel Ángel Soto, spokesman for Greenpeace in Spain.

The 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, which European regulators supported, found burning trees for electric power was a carbon-neutral energy source if the trees are replanted.

However, a 2018 report by the MIT Sloan School of Business in the United States claimed that carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood were higher than from burning coal because wood contains more water, even when compressed into a pellet. It said it would take between 44 to 104 years for new trees to soak up the excess CO2 and make wood a greener fuel source than coal.

Solar energy has also experienced a boom in the past three years, according to Red Electrica Española, the electricity grid. It has gone from producing 3.55% of total energy in 2019 to 8.05% in 2021.

This can partly be explained by the growing popularity of individuals putting solar panels on their homes.

In 2018, the Spanish government abolished the so-called ‘sun tax’ introduced by a previous conservative administration which charged people for connecting to the national grid.

State financial help and grants for the renewable energy sector plus a fall in the cost of installing panels have all boosted this alternative energy source.

The industry has also introduced new panels which can be fitted to people’s homes by their owners rather than being installed by a company.

Guillermo Arrufat works for Tornasol Energy, a company based in Valencia, southeastern Spain. Their panels can be fitted by buyers to their homes, making them more suitable for people renting flats.

“There has been a huge rise in the number of people buying solar panels especially as the price of electricity and gas has gone up so much,” he told Euronews.

Meanwhile, at the Madrid branch of Leroy Merlin, a DIY supermarket, Juan Jiménez was trying to decide what type of wood-burning pellet heater to buy.

“They are not cheap. I am thinking of spending about €1,000. But this seems like an investment because we don’t know when this war is going to end and when prices for gas are going to come down,” Jimenez told Euronews.

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