Fast Fish: Pioneers of Spain’s Energy Transition

15 November, 2021

“Today it is no longer the big fish that eats the little fish, but the fast fish that eats the slow fish. We in these regions have the capability to be fast, to be pioneers and to attract transition funds with our projects. That’s the logic we are working to.”

As General Secretary of one of Spain’s preeminent workers unions, José Luis Alperi Jove knows a thing or two about processes of industrial change. Speaking from his office in the Asturian town of Mieres, he offers a no-holds-barred assessment of the challenges facing the region after three decades of decline of its once indomitable coal industry. 

“Optimism, pessimism; what we have to overcome is aestheticism. We have to actually do things. Time is running out,” he says.

José Luis Alperi Jove General Secretary of workers union Soma-fitag-ugt

At the industry’s peak, more than 400,000 workers toiled in the Asturias’ coal mines. Today, with the industry gone, the town’s Mayor, Aníbal José Vázquez Fernández, a former miner himself, says his contemporaries fear that their children will have to leave in search of work. “If we don’t take action,” he says, “perhaps our grandchildren too.”

Like many towns across the region, Mieres’ economy was almost entirely focused on agriculture and livestock. Then coal arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing with it complementary heavy industries like steel, zinc, aluminium, cement, chemicals and cellulose. Today, locals are under no illusion: coal’s departure threatens to undermine all they have built if adequate action isn’t taken to replace it. However, beyond the feeling of trepidation, there is also the sense that an enormous opportunity looms just around the corner.

Juan Carlos Aguilera Folgueiras Executive Director of the Asturian Energy Foundation

“We have a metal industry that is producing structures for wind farms all over the world, engineering companies that are participating in the most advanced energy projects in the world. There are success stories, we just need to capitalise on them,” says Juan Carlos Aguilera Folgueiras, Executive Director of the Asturian Energy Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the creation of environmentally sustainable energy solutions.

Indeed, Spain is enjoying something of a green energy revolution. 2020 was its greenest year yet, producing 44 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Driving forward this transformation is a well-documented growth in solar and wind power, but less well known renewable power solutions are also playing their part.

Barredo coal mine

The Barredo Conversion

One such example is the conversion of Mieres’ Barredo coal mine into a 100 percent renewable, geothermal heating plant.

“Back then it was quite a pioneering project,” says Noel Canto Toimil, Head of Innovation at Hunosa, the company responsible for embarking on the conversion in 2006. “There were hardly any similar projects in the world so we approached it with a real sense of adventure.”

Canto’s team knew the closure of mine would be a cost burden for Hunosa as it lies on the edge of the town, and therefore requires regular pumping to avoid flooding surrounding areas. “This is a big cost for us because we have to pump a large amount of water annually,” says Canto.

Noel Canto Toimil Head of Innovation at Hunosa

The challenge for Canto’s team was to turn one of the very coal mines that drove Spain’s high-carbon industrialisation process into a permanent source of renewable green energy, and turn a profit in the process. 

The key to creating this win-win scenario lay in the depth of the mine, which naturally warms the water it holds to an average year-round temperature of 23 degrees celsius, an ideal source of heating.

The system the team developed works by pumping the warm water to the surface through a borehole sunk into the mine. The water is then fed into a heat pump, where the temperature can be topped up if required.

Pablo Fernández Martínez Head of Renewable Energy at Hunosa

“All the electricity we use at the barredo geothermal facility, whether it is for pumping, heating or air-conditioning, has been certified as 100 percent renewable by the electricity supplier that we work with,” says Pablo Vázquez, Head of Renewable Energy at Hunosa.

The first buildings to join the scheme were the University of Oviedo’s research centre, a local hospital, and the Asturian Energy Foundation. Each customer is connected via a district heating system, allowing them to receive warm water to heat their buildings, before returning the water back to the mine for the cycle to begin again.

“For the university, being part of the mine water heating project is a great opportunity to put our own theories into practice and set an example for how we should use these resources,” says Professor Marta Maria Hernando Alvarez, Vice-rectorate for Material and Technological Resources University of Oviedo.

Professor Marta Maria Hernando Alvarez  Vice-rectorate for Material and Technological Resources  University of Oviedo

Between 12 and 15 people from Hunosa’s diversification department work at the geothermal plant at any one time. All have been “recycled” from their previous positions within the company’s mining arm. “We’re taking advantage of all our available resources,” says Canto, in a nod to the redeployment of the mine, and the people responsible for transforming it. 

Mayor Vázquez shares Canto’s enthusiasm for the project: “We are working to make Mieres a more sustainable town. The smallest possible climate footprint we make, the better,” he says. But he harbours concerns about where money for similar projects will come from. “There is no doubt that we need specific funds for these kinds of transformations. They are large investments and it’s impossible for the city council to undertake them on our own. ” 

Mind the gap

Funding for more projects is on the horizon in the form of a €250 million Just Transition deal struck between the Spanish government and miner’s unions in 2018. The money will cover early retirement schemes, environmental restoration work, and retraining activities in green industries. Millions of euros will also soon be available from the EU’s €17.5 billion Just Transition Fund, and €750 billion covid recovery package (NextGenerationEU). The problem is, they are yet to filter through to communities on the ground. 

“We signed the agreement for the just transition of coal mining two years ago,” says Alperi, whose union, Soma-fitag-UGT, represents more than 5,000 current and former miners. “But the reality as it stands, is that there is still no alternative employment to the jobs lost with the mining sector. We’ve developed plans for training courses so that miners can retrain in other activities and industries like renewable energy, but we haven’t had the money to start them yet,” he says.

Former coal site, Mieres

 The rules of the game

Spain had little choice but to wind down its coal industry when it did. An eight year EU derogation on state aid, which the government used to keep the industry on life support, expired in 2018, acted as the final nail in the industry’s coffin.

But while Spain has rightly received plaudits for its Just Transition deal, many questions remain about what a post-coal future will look like. In particular, whether there will be a new state energy company, what new industries will be fostered in former coal regions, and whether those industries will be supported to compete with rivals in other parts of the world.

“What I like least of all,” explains Mayor Vázquez, “is that we know absolutely nothing about how the transition is going to be done. National and regional governments have to be involved in this paradigm change for the mining areas. If they don’t get involved, it will be very difficult to achieve anything at all.”

Aníbal José Vázquez Fernández Mayor of Mieres

It’s a salutary warning echoed by union leader Alperi: “I believe that there is a future beyond coal, but we must agree on the rules of the game so that we have legal certainty. Companies, workers, government: we each need to know what we are going to abide by,” he says.

A chance to be pioneers

Despite all of the challenges, and the uncertainty surrounding the direction of change, there remains a great deal of optimism that the region can still bounce back, and that investments in renewable energy and associated knowledge-based industries lie at the heart of any such strategy.

“We must take advantage of renewables, not only for their energy generation capacity, but also for their industrial potential, and their capacity to give us a place in the world of knowledge,” says Aguilera. “I have no doubt that if we provide knowledge, we will generate enough value through renewable energies to create the employment that we need.”

Mayor Vázquez agrees: “We are committed to building a town that serves its citizens. I want us to have the opportunity to host knowledge and technology companies here, so that we can work on new technologies and new forms of energy.”

Watch the short documentary now on Waterbear, or below on Youtube.