“Wind energy, yes – but not like this.” One could expect these words from local activists at a protest against a new renewable energy project due to take root on their land. Instead, they were part of the acceptance speech of Spanish film director Rodrigo Sorogoyen at the ‘Goyas’, Spain’s national film academy awards (think of Spain’s version of the Oscars) broadcasted on TVs during prime time across the country on 15 February. Opposition to renewables is going mainstream.

Sorogoyen was voted best director for the Galician film As Bestas (‘The Beasts’), which narrates the story of a French couple that settle in the countryside of north-western Spain looking for a life surrounded by nature, only for tensions to arise with other villagers – partly involving the selling of some land for a wind energy project. The movie has been an overwhelming success, winning as many as nine Spanish film academy awards in February.

Spanish cinema has not let solar off the hook, either. In 2022, the film Alcarràs by Catalan film director Carla Simón became an instant hit. That movie takes the name of a rural village in western Catalonia, where the Soler family owns a peach orchard. The owner of the land dies, and his heir decides to sell the land to build a massive park of solar panels – much to the opposition of most of the Soler family, who refuse to leave even when offered financial support and retraining to operate the panels.

Alcarràs was Spain’s bid for this year’s Oscars in the best foreign film category. It did not make it onto the list of nominees, but it did win the Golden Bear for best movie at the Berlin International Film Festival last year.

For an EU energy transition ‘insider’, who assumed by default that renewables are the heroes in this story, seeing wind turbines and solar panels depicted as villains was an eye-opener.

The films highlight one of the paradoxes of Spain’s energy transition, likely to be replicated elsewhere: as deployment of renewables ramps up, so will public opposition to it. Both As Bestas and Alcarràs have sparked an intense debate in Spain over where and how renewables are installed. The influx of op-eds from experts and editorials in major regional and national newspapers is constant, and the debate has divided Spain’s own environmental movement between those who promote the acceleration of renewables, and those who criticise its impact on nature.

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Opposition to renewables in ‘emptied Spain’

Ramón Mateo, director at Madrid-based public affairs consultancy beBartlet, says the debates have intensified since renewables play a larger role in the country’s electricity mix: “It has become much more prominent in recent years,” he told Energy Monitor.

“There will always be a front that will position itself against the notions of progress and disruption," he adds, "and from this point of view, particularly in the case of Alcarràs, we see the depiction of fear against the disappearance of the world and the life that [the characters in the film] used to live in.”

At the heart of the discussion lies the uneven economic and demographic development of Spain’s regions. While the country’s cities and industrial areas continue to grow and develop – with commensurate risks to the cost of living and environmental pollution – its rural areas are increasingly depopulated as inhabitants move to urban areas.

According to a report by the Bank of Spain, 42% of Spain’s rural towns are at risk of depopulation. In turn, some 22 million inhabitants (out of 47 million) live in the 100 most populated cities.

This phenomenon is known as the 'emptied Spain’ and many large-scale renewables projects are either located in or planned for some of these increasingly depopulated areas.

“This is a debate that we must open and address, in which way we compensate and facilitate access to the benefits of renewable energies to local communities,” Spain's environment minister Teresa Ribera said at the end February, as reported by newspaper El Periódico de España. “It is very important to have our territories and its inhabitants in mind, and not only the environmental and biodiversity aspects,” she added.

The current situation has fuelled opposition to renewables in the form of populist movements.

These movements often say they refuse to give away their land to profit nearby cities, which will take advantage of the renewable electricity produced on their land. A case in point is the platform Teruel Existe (‘Teruel exists’), in eastern Spain. It became a political party in 2019, and had the slogan 'renovables sí, pero no así' (‘yes to renewables, but not this way’) featured very prominently in its manifesto. The party got three MPs – two in the Senate, one in the Congress – elected in Spain’s last regional election. At a recent debate at the Spanish Congress, one of its MPs, Tomás Guitarte, said that “the fast-track process for the acceleration of renewables will lead to the worst environmental regression in history”.

The everlasting problem of permitting

The national debate reached a new pitch last December, when Spain approved a royal decree to fast-track the permitting of renewables – as part of a wider set of measures for Spain to address the energy price crisis.

This has been an evergreen demand of the continent’s renewable energy industry, which has seen permitting as one of the bottlenecks preventing its mass deployment. Francisco Reynés, chairman and CEO of Spanish utility Naturgy, said at an event in Barcelona in March that “the biggest bottleneck to invest in renewables is called permitting, as well as a certain social contestation that is increasing”.

Faster permitting procedures are not a bad thing in itself, says Cosimo Tansini, policy officer for renewable energy at Brussels-based NGO the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

“The situation radically changes, however, depending on the competent authority: some regions are investing in more and more human resources to facilitate permitting procedures amid the increasing number of requests, but sometimes the lack of resources from many public authorities causes many bottlenecks to the approval of such requests,” he told Energy Monitor.

In particular, the nature conservation movement has criticised the European Commission’s REPowerEU plan for weakening the role of environmental impact assessments (EIAs): the Commission has designated ‘go-to’ areas for the deployment of renewables and proposes that any project deployed in such an area is exempt from an EIA. National platforms such as ‘Macrorenovables no’ (‘No to macro-renewables’) have heavily criticised this and even called the Spanish royal decree implementing these rules “an ecocide”.

“Ideally, permitting procedures could have been accelerated [by] maintaining existing procedures, and guaranteeing public authorities have the necessary human resources to do so,” beBartlet’s Mateo says.

“Simplifying environmental impact assessments poses important risks: the fact that these projects will not have to go through all the [regular] procedures and filters could cast a shade of doubt around them, which then also has an impact on public opinion,” he adds.

The EEB’s Tansini argues that, from a nature conservation point of view, REPowerEU’s provisions on EIAs are “very bad”.

“If a project near a Natura 2000 [nature protection] area undergoes an assessment and gets a negative outcome, already in the past it could get a ‘green light’ if [after an impact assessment] it could be demonstrated that it is beneficial for public health,” he says. “In the new proposal, the European Commission doesn’t modify that: instead the overriding public interest must be presumed.”

This will make it more difficult to legally challenge new renewables installations, says activists.

“If you take away the idea of doing an EIA, it means that it cannot be challenged anymore,” said Bruna Campos, senior policy manager at environmental NGO EuroNatur, at trade association SolarPower Europe's SolarPower Summit in Brussels in March. “So, you take away the power of citizens to be able to actually challenge a project [...] and maybe the court will decide it was a good project, but it is this freedom to be able to do so.

“Having the impact assessment helps also getting the acceptance of citizens to be able to feel part of it as well,” she added.

Moving on from opposition: Sharing the benefits of renewables

To avoid real-life examples of Alcarràs or As Bestas and bring rural areas on board, renewable project developers will need to ensure they share the benefits with local populations.

“This will require constant dialogue,” says Tansini. “Project developers might be allowing and taking on board views of the communities involved, even with larger energy companies; participating in citizens’ assemblies or engaging in dialogues between NGOs and project developers.

“Developers should also come up with projects installed in such a way that minimises the impact on the land and supports agricultural practices, or engage with renewable energy communities. It is all about sharing the benefits.”

To address that, project developers have been increasingly investing in agrivoltaics – major utilities like Endesa, Iberdrola or Naturgy have launched several projects that integrate renewables and agriculture, using part of the land where solar panels are located to grow crops in their shade. These projects are said to increase the quality of field crops and provide direct benefits to farmers and foresters, and reduce water demand.

Demographic challenge

Films like As Bestas or Alcarràs illustrate the impacts of neglecting cohesion policy and the development of rural areas for many years – a problem that the energy transition has highlighted.

While environment and cohesion go together, experts believe Spain still has a long way to go until it has a real strategy to ‘revive’ these emptied lands. “There have been recently some advancements in order to get this topic into the agenda but far from enough compared to the scale of the challenge,” says Mateo.

He adds that the energy transition brings a unique opportunity to support depopulating areas. “There are several benefits to it: the energy transition can offer these areas a much more decentralised energy system and practically any territory can contribute to it, and the benefits can be shared in a much more equitable manner,” Mateo tells Energy Monitor.

“At the end of the day, the energy transition is real and the opposition we are seeing in Spain is the opposition we will probably see in many other countries [too], but the opposition to renewables hasn’t by any means grown in the same proportion to its deployment – it is still rather contained,” he concludes.

Nevertheless, at the SolarPower Summit, MEP Nicolás González Casares from Spain’s ruling PSOE party said that the ongoing climate could continue fuelling populism across Europe. “We don’t take this issue of public acceptance into account enough: populism is growing in Europe, so populists are trying to use this opposition to renewables to gain space in rural communities,” he said.

“At the end, we could have governments that don’t believe in renewables, and this is really important [to address],” he added.