The debate on the ecological transition erupts in Euskadi and Catalonia
Gessamí Forner – El Salto
23 SEP 2022 06:00
The price of electricity and gas bills has not only bothered ordinary people. It also annoys institutions and companies. This division between people and entities is what marks the difference between a democratic ecological transition with social justice as its objective and another transition that consolidates an increasingly unequal society in which capitalism can continue unchecked. Although the years begin on January 1, September is the beginning of many things, including the political course. It is the month in which the debates are opened in which there are important issues at stake. Both in the Basque Country and in Catalonia, the ecological transition has left the offices and has entered the media agenda with two different proposals.
Statkraft is a Norwegian public company that operates transnationally outside its borders, planning renewable energy plants in other countries. It has become the leading company in renewable generation in Europe. Its objective is to obtain an economic return on its investments, to invest them in the country that continues to be the largest oil producer in the EU, but which is aware that the goose that lays the golden eggs’ days are numbered. Statkraft differs from many companies in one respect: it follows a transparent communication strategy in certain parts of the process. They also do discreet meetings with politicians and businessmen to test the terrain, like all companies.
The announcement on September 13 by the Basque Government that Statkraft wishes to install two wind power plants in the mountains of Gipuzkoa has created a social uproar in the Basque Country. This announcement was accompanied by the approval of a party historically opposed to these projects, EH Bildu, in addition to the favorable position of the social manager of the Fagor Group, Aritz Otxandiano Kanpo. The mayor of one of the affected towns, Azpeitia, Nagore Alkorta (EH Bildu), added that the construction of the plants could represent “an opportunity”.
EH Bildu’s position is anchored in the perspective of the possibility of participating economically in these projects, socializing the benefits, and in which the neighbors will be able to give their opinion in municipal assemblies. The Azpeitia City Council announced yesterday that the informative meeting will take place on October 11, at 7:00 p.m. in the Soreasu theater. Statkraft has encouraged both individuals and companies as well as town councils to become investors, thus creating a kind of energy community in a public-private collaboration project.
The required investment is 90 million for two wind power plants located in Itsaraz, on the border between Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, and Piaspe, between Azpeita, Errezil and Zestoa (Gipuzkoa). The first would have a capacity of 52.8 megawatts and the second, 33 MW. Initial information indicates that Statkraft would install seven and six wind turbines, respectively, predictably about 200 meters high (the Iberdrola tower in Bilbao has 165).
Statkraft’s careful forms differentiate it from the omnipresent company in the Basque Country: Iberdrola. But he shares with her that he chooses the site where he wants to operate and proposes it to the Basque Executive, governed in a coalition between PNV and PSE. The Autonomous Community of the Basque Country lacks Sectorial Territorial Planning (PTS). The Basque Government has assured that it has not yet been able to prepare it. Nor has he explained what he has spent his time on or what difficulties he has encountered. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has accelerated or fostered a political and social environment to argue that the ecological transition is impenetrable —Aritz Otxandiano explained in a radio interview that Fagor’s electricity bill has multiplied this year by five and that of gas by six— .
On Tuesday night, a hundred residents gathered in a local Azpeitia. They were constituted as the Sañoa Bizirik collective, in reference to the affected mountain. A resident of Errezil, who prefers to remain anonymous, explains to El Salto that “the most important thing about this meeting has been that there is a group of people who oppose the project.” He considers, individually, that “Statkraft’s nice words make a project that is the same, or perhaps more powerful, the one recently proposed by Greencapital on Mount Karakate, between Soraluce and Elgoibar, more friendly. “Statkraft has entered through the front door and they have put a carpet on it,” he concludes. The three municipalities affected by the projected plant in Azpeitia, Errezil and Zestoa are managed by EH Bildu.
From the Araba Bizirik collective, Rebeka González de Alaiza Pérez de Villarreal summarizes that “the decisions that EH Bildu has taken regarding the expansion of renewables in the Basque Country undermine the existing social consensus and allow the legitimacy of these projects approved in the legal exceptions imposed by the Basque Government, such as the Tapia Law 1 and 2 and the avoidance of the mandatory environmental impact study”, in reference to the law approved last political year that grants more power to the Basque Executive than to the city councils, this imposing projects considered of interest even preventing an environmental study from endorsing them.
On the one hand, the neighbors opposed to the wind power plant show their concern about seeing their mountain invaded by mills in 2027, the date with which Statkraft plans the inauguration of the power plants. Losing the landscape and large birds dying on the blades are the two main impacts that wind turbines have, indicates the professor of renewable energies at the School of Engineering of the University of the Basque Country, Aitor Urresti, who has also been general manager of Energy and Climate Change in the Balearic Islands (2019-2021) and worked at Shesa, the Basque public hydrocarbon company, as soon as he graduated (1999-2001).
On the other hand, Araba Bizirik, a group with years of experience, adds the political reading: “It is a centralized energy model, which will not be distributed in a municipality no matter how much it is produced in a locality. It is a model that simply gives answers to continuous development. We have to decrease, we have to be brave to deal with the eco-social crisis, which is incompatible with the destruction of natural ecosystems”, warns González.
The professor of renewables praises the entry of Statkraft, with previous contacts in the municipalities and with a proposal to socialize the benefits —“this is how we valued the projects in the Balearic Islands”—, but criticizes the Basque Government: “The installations are produced in the law of the jungle, because there is no regulation, so any company can request permission and be granted expropriation rights”.
At the same time, Urresti appreciates that there is a “local debate, because it is essential to give the floor to those who are there”, but adds that the “latent debate on the transition model must also surface, the one that should be put on the table not only the saving and energy efficiency that renewable energies can provide, but that these are implemented in a democratic and socially just way, and the latter is always forgotten”, because he reminds that “things are not socially neutral”: “A Who benefits from subsidies for a photovoltaic installation? To those who have money to advance the payment of the solar panel”, in addition to, surely, a single-family home. The question now is whether the ordinary people of Azpeitia who do not have money saved to invest in a wind power plant will see their electricity bill reduced.
Urresti appreciates the response given by the Basque Government after refusing to create a public energy company, as the Podemos Euskadi-IU insistently demanded last political year: “They gave them a very good response, ‘that we already have a public company, EVE’, but they forgot to add that the EVE is not exercising the function that Podemos requested. A public company, if it is well managed, can fight against energy poverty, beyond social bonds”. EH Bildu abstained.
The professor concludes by recalling that in a territory without planning, companies propose wind turbines where there is more wind. That is to say, in the crests of the mountain, areas that are not anthroposised by human beings. It is in already degraded areas where the mills make sense, such as those located in the docks of the Port of Bilbao. The permanent noise of the ships and the industry do not encourage the vultures, eagles and other birds to plan the area. “It yields less, but putting small wind turbines on the banks of the estuary would not cause an impact,” he concludes.
The second call for aid to industry to pay the Basque Government’s gas bill totals five million euros over the next five months, to which ten million must be added in the first round. Almost none of the pavilions of the dozens of industrial estates scattered throughout the Basque geography have solar panels on their roofs, nor wind turbines on the edges.
The Lehendakari Iñigo Urkullu announced yesterday a new plan to mitigate the cost of inflation and the price of energy, with a budget of 400 million from the percentage that corresponds to the Basque Country of the collection of the Spanish Government with the energy tax -7,000 million he estimated to collect. After his meeting with the Basque Finance Council, in mid-October he will announce what he intends to invest them in.
One of the requirements of the CUP to support Pere Aragonés in his investiture in the formation of the Catalan Government between ERC and Junts was the creation of a public energy company. Surprisingly, Aragonés announced this week in New York that he will launch it on October 4 and that his task will be to generate and market energy by installing solar panels on the roofs of all the real estate assets of the Generalitat.
The Catalan administration is the main consumer of energy and in 2019 it spent 70 million to pay bills, according to El Periódico. The Government intends to install plates in a large part of the five million square meters of the roofs of its 1,542 buildings. It expects to generate 329 megawatts; now he is 14.
“The CUP proposed a public energy that would affect the three bases: generation, distribution and marketing, but what the Government proposes is a supra-municipal energy community for self-consumption that lowers the Generalitat’s bill but does not confront the oligopolistic system”, says Dani Cornellà, parliamentarian of the CUP. He acknowledges that the Aragonés proposal is “a small step”, but that it is far from what was agreed upon. And he remembers the current Catalan panorama, not very different from the Basque one: “What we proposed was that the Government get involved, it is not necessary that all the projects be private or from vulture funds that install macro-projects. The transition must be carried out in line with the Catalan law on climate change: it must be democratic, decentralized and local, generating energy in the place closest to its consumption.
The CUP commissioned university professor Sergi Saladier to study what could be done. The answer was to fill the roofs of the industrial estates and the margins of the AP7 motorway and other motorways with plates and mills. With these simple initiatives, Catalonia would reach 50% of the 2030 energy goals.
But the proposals on the table are very different. Catalonia also does not have a territorial planning plan and that is why the BlueFloat Energy and Sener consortium has proposed installing a macro floating offshore wind farm on the Costa Brava, which, in addition to having a valuable ecosystem, is very windy. The consortium plans to install 35 wind turbines to produce 500MW. It is known as the Tramuntana project and Stop macro marine wind farm is the group born in 2021 to prevent Cap de Roses from becoming the industrial estate for renewable energies in Girona.
“There is an insistence on a failed and unsustainable model, riddled with megaprojects that, in general, are not based on the social needs of our territories, but on the search for profit in global markets. Megaprojects that fundamentally respond to business recycling interests in sectors such as fossil energy or the automotive industry, and not to social priorities to face the inescapable transition”, warns the economist and member of Omal, Gonzalo Fernández. “They are imposed on the citizens in the territories they occupy, without any democratic, free and informed debate. They are based on corporate ownership, never public-social ownership, and insist on centralized models led by large corporations, against democratic planning and the strengthening of the collective that a moment like the one we are going through requires,” he adds. Environmental groups, the ecological left and degrowth economists have been making noise for years, without getting their voice to generate a deep debate in society about the energy transition. If the political proposals on the table do not lower the electricity bill of ordinary people, perhaps they are interested in a deep debate that includes them.