Even those who want to generate clean energy in their own homes remain vulnerable to problems that affect the national grid. Domestic producers of electricity from renewable sources still have to put up with power cuts, which in some cases can last for several hours, that periodically affect Catalonia. Even though they have installed their own production systems, they are unable to run them without power from the national grid. Joan Manuel Martín, the owner of the Llinars del Vallès farm became the first individual producer to sell solar power to the Spanish grid in the year 2000. His home is equipped with a wide range of renewable energy systems: he generates electricity with roof-installed solar panels, heat with a biomass boiler that burns forest renderings and agricultural waste, and hot water with a solar water heater.

But on 8 March, the date of the most recent power cut, he found himself in the same situation as less innovative consumers. "When the snow came, I had no power for 21 hours," he explains. When the grid went down, his solar panels were automatically disconnected. They no longer supplied power to the network, and the current system does not allow him to consume the electricity they produce on site.

A new range of possibilities

Martín also had to put up with the cold. The water pumps used by his biomass boiler are powered by electricity, so the heating went off too. And as there was hardly any sun during the snow storm, his solar water did not offer any comfort either. "The distribution system should be modified to enable people to make use of the solar power they produce in their own homes," he says. "But that is not possible today." He does not see why he should be left in the dark during a power cut, when he actually produces electricity whenever the sun shines.

This paradoxical situation is a direct consequence of the current power grid management system, which distributes power from centralised sources, and does not take advantage of the new range of possibilities that have been created by individual domestic installations (also referred to as micro-generation units) distributed over a wide geographical area. All clean energy generated by individual producers is fed into the grid, who are then obliged to buy power for their own needs.

Big companies vs individual producers

Worse still, when power lines show signs of weakness or a problem in voltage or frequency is detected, the circuit breakers on the solar panels are activated to take them off-line, and they cannot be reconnected until the normal functioning of the grid has been restored. "It is ridiculous that the law does not allow individuals to consume home-generated power," says José Enrique Vázquez, President of the Grupo de Gestores Energéticos [Power managers' association]."And this really is a legal question, because all of the technical issues have been resolved."

"The big companies do not want us to be able to produce power when the grid is down," explains Autonomous University of Barcelona professor, Josep Puig, a critic of the current grid management model, which he likens to a Roman aquaduct network: energy produced at one location is transported to be consumed at other faraway locations. "The basic idea of the current model is:I produce electricity and then I sell it to the network,'" he adds, "but that results in an idiotic situation where a breakdown on the network will mean that you are not only unable to consume electricity, but you are also unable to produce it. The current system is not designed to manage production that is spread over a wide geographical area, and it will have to be modified if domestic electricity producers are to be able to use the power they produce."

Solar sector will expand

In short, the network has to be decentralised, and it will also have to be made smarter. "It will have to be equipped with a bi-directional communication system, so that when the risk of a breakdown is detected, domestic production installations can be instructed to go off-line and divert power to the homes where they are installed," he adds.In the meantime, a number of groups have launched a campaign that aims to cut through red tape to liberate home produced electricity. The day when residents of urban areas will be able to produce their own solar power is fast approaching.

The Photovoltaic Sector Association(ASIF) has submitted a formal request to the government to remove any remaining bureaucratic obstacles. Until now, the photovoltaic sector has been driven by major investment in solar farms and power stations. When the price of solar panels reaches a lower level and when the premium rate offered to solar producers is reduced, ASIF expects the sector to expand into a home generation market, which will provide rooftop solar installations to enable home owners to produce and use their own power. Only surplus energy will be fed into the grid.

"But this will not be easy, because every kilowatt that stays in an individual home is another kilowatt that the power companies won't be able to sell," points out ASIF communications manager Tomás Díaz, who believes that power companies should now be focusing on the development of new activities in the energy services sector. The new system will require a new set of rules "and a smart grid with the capacity to manage energy on a local level," and there is no doubt that it will have to be established now that the European Union has announced the goal of zero-energy performance in residential buildings by 2015.