How to decarbonise Catalonia

Eliminating emissions in Catalonia by 2050 could cost up to €230bn

Helena Rodríguez Gómez i Xavier Grau del Cerro
3 min
A wind farm in Belltall, Conca de Barberà.

BarcelonaEmissions neutrality by 2050. This is the great – and costly – challenge in the face of the climate emergency. "It is clear that we will not get there," says Josep Maria Montagut, president of the Catalonia's Professional Association of Industrial Engineers' energy committee. Marta Morera, director general of the Catalan Energy Institute (ICAEN), is more optimistic. She believes that the goal will be achieved "if what the Proencat (Prospectiva Energètica de Catalunya 2050) says is fulfilled".

The starting point is not encouraging. Catalonia emitted a total of 40 million tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere in 2019. And one of the keys to achieving this is the roll-out of renewable energies, where Catalonia lags behind the rest of the State. Now, the Catalan government wants to give the industry a boost.

A large investment

Making the transition can cost up to €230bn

Making the transition to a green economy is not cheap. The Barcelona Chamber of Commerce calculated that €39.6bn will have to be invested in renewables alone. And the Association of Engineers proposes different scenarios, in which the total cost of decarbonisation would range from €175bn to €230bn.

Will it be possible to assume the cost? Josep Maria Montagut points out that there are many private investors willing to do so. He gives an example. "When the World Bank told Spain that it had to build highways, the resources did not exist, but they were built through a system of concessions," he says. The director of Icaen answers: "What is the cost of not doing it? It is higher". For Morera, the economic crisis is directly related to the energy crisis - as the attack in Ukraine shows. Therefore, advancing in decarbonisation "is the last chance".

To achieve a clean Catalonia, a combination of factors is needed, such as energy efficiency, a reduction in intensity (using less energy to produce the same thing), electrification and development of renewables and the development of new technologies.

Energy efficiency

Mobility, homes and services are the areas where most progress can be made

According to the Association of Engineers, transport will go from consuming 45% final energy to consuming 27% in 2050. The domestic and service sectors are the other areas that can reduce energy consumption the most. The Generalitat calculates that with efficiency the Catalan economy will use less than half the energy it uses today to produce the same as it does now.

The starting point, however, is very low. Much of the Catalan housing stock is deficient and there is a need to invest in refurbishments. As for transport, which currently accounts for 45% of energy consumption, the use of electric cars in Catalonia is negligible. However, Spain is the third country in Europe in terms of electromobility, both in terms of the number of cars and the number of public charging stations, according to the Spanish manufacturers' association, Anfac.


Electricity from renewable sources must gain weight

Electrification is the term used to refer to the weight of electrical energy in final energy consumption. It will have to gain weight and be generated with renewables. Icaen forecasts that the demand for electricity will increase by 125.9% in the period 2017-2050, given that the percentage of electrification of the economy would increase from 25.1% in 2019 to 76.6% in 2050. There will have to be an 18-fold increase in renewable electricity production by 2050.

This will also force investment in storage systems and adapting electricity grids to distributed generation. "The current distribution model has become obsolete, the grid must be transformed into a digitised model," according Montagut.

Currently, 54% of the electricity produced in Catalonia comes from the Ascó and Vandellòs nuclear power plants. These plants would have to be shut down in the next 8 to 13 years, according to the foreseen timetable. Only 8% of Catalonia's electricity is now produced by non-hydro renewables and electricity generation accounted for 16% of Catalonia's CO2 emissions from combined cycle and cogeneration plants.

Solar panels in Sabadell.

To achieve the targets, 30% of electricity would have to be generated by self-consumption by 2050. Regarding wind power, applications are currently being processed for 108 wind turbines, for 611 MW, whilst the goal, according to engineers, should be 20,000 MW by 2050. The Government believes that it will be necessary to use offshore wind power. As for solar energy, there are just over 1,400 MW in the pipeline, when the target is 30,000 MW by 2050.

Green hydrogen

A technology that can help clean up industry

"Green hydrogen can be put to uses such as chemical and fertiliser production, and can be used in heavy industry," says David Cebon, a Cambridge professor and member of the Hydrogen Science Coalition. Whether hydrogen can ever fully replace fossil fuels is still an open question. Moreover, it requires a lot of renewables to produce it and Catalonia will have to import it, says Montagut.

For industry and heavy transport, biofuels will also have to be used. It will be essential to improve the management and reuse of waste following the principles of the circular economy.

Complaints and land use

"We are aware that more renewable power needs to be installed in Catalonia, we just think that the way it is being done is a mess," complains Irene González Pijuan, an engineer and member of the Network for Energy Sovereignty. The lack of planning and local participation is the main complaint of the ninety entities that make up the Network. They say that, on paper, the new decree on renewable energy passed in the autumn of 2021 was hopeful in terms of commitment to self-consumption and energy communities and the creation of local participation bodies. But they complain that its principles are not being rolled out. "We are not seeing that distributed generation is being prioritised as we were told. For people to participate in an issue as complicated as energy, you have to establish many participation mechanisms, very clear measures and a very robust budget," explains González. According to the Chamber of Commerce, renewables will occupy up to 17% of the land, but the Icaen reduces it just over 2%.