Amazon Greenwashing: How The World's Largest Retailer Hides Its Carbon Footprint In Plain Sight
An investigation reveals that the company does not own any of the three renewable power plants it claims to operate in Spain — as well as a scheme allowing Amazon to dodge full regulatory oversight of its projects.
MADRID — Elías Bendodo, who was then Minister of the Presidency for the regional government of Andalusia, Spain, wore a reflective vest with the initials "AWS" when he inaugurated the Cabrera Solar photovoltaic plant in June 2021. This plant is located in the municipality of Alcalá de Guadaíra, near Seville.
AWS stands for Amazon Web Services, which is Amazon's cloud services brand. This "Amazon solar plant" — how it was described by the Andalusian government in their press release at the inauguration — has a capacity of 200 MW, and was designed to provide energy to as many as 120,000 households.
On its official website, the multinational company led by Jeff Bezos features an interactive map titled "Our Renewable Energy Projects Worldwide." In Spain, it counts 45 projects. Most are solar panels installed on the rooftops of Amazon facilities, while 18 projects are more substantial, including solar and wind farms.
Amazon also periodically issues press releases that sound something like this: "Amazon surpasses 1.55 GW of renewable capacity in Spain with two new solar plants in Castilla y León and a new solar roof in Catalonia."
So far, everything appears normal. These are common strategies for any company. However, as La Marea has been able to verify, Amazon does not in fact own at least some of these projects.
Who owns the plants?
When inquiring at the Alcalá de Guadaíra City Council about the Cabrera Solar plant, the response is clear and concise: "Consulting the municipal database and records, there are no building permits for the construction of a photovoltaic solar plant promoted by Amazon."
In the documentation published in the Official Gazette of the Andalusian Regional Government, the American multinational company is also absent, and instead, the British company Solarcentury (acquired by the Norwegian Statkraft) is listed as the developer.
Currently, three solar farms announced by Amazon are operational, as confirmed by the e-commerce multinational to La Marea. The first is the Alcalá complex, which has been in operation since 2020. A year later, the photovoltaic plant in Almochuel, Zaragoza, also began producing energy, but Amazon does not appear in the official documents for this project either. The local community, the Government of Aragon, and Forestalia (the company leading the complex corporate structure developed around the project) all express a complete lack of knowledge regarding Amazon's role in the plant.
It's part of a massive greenwashing campaign by one of the world's most polluting companies.
Finally, on March 9, the solar farm in Mérida was inaugurated with the presence of the President of the Extremadura Regional Government, Guillermo Fernández Vara, and the Minister of the Presidency, Félix Bolaños. During this event, unlike in Alcalá de Guadaíra, the e-commerce multinational's logo was not present in promotional materials. But the President of Extremadura explained an important detail, that this photovoltaic plant would produce electricity "for Amazon."
That's the role the company plays in these facilities: it acts as an energy buyer for the electricity produced there. In none of the three projects does Amazon participate as the developer, despite various headlines that identify it as such.
Some statements include: "Amazon chooses Seville for its first solar project in Spain" (Diario de Sevilla, 2020), "Amazon's solar plant in Zaragoza already provides energy, adding to the production in Alcalá de Guadaíra" (El Periódico de la Energía, 2021), or "Amazon's photovoltaic plant in Mérida has been given the green light for construction" (Canal Extremadura, 2021).
Amazon confirms that the company's investment in renewable energy is "largely made through power purchase agreements." When the multinational was also asked why it presents these projects as its own and if it has informed the press that Amazon is not the owner of the photovoltaic plants, there was no comment made.
Neither the Junta de Andalucía nor Amazon have explained why the counselor Elías Bendodo attended the inauguration of the Alcalá de Guadaíra plant dressed in AWS attire.
All of these actions are part of a massive greenwashing campaign by one of the world's most polluting companies.
The multinational itself acknowledges that its total carbon emissions increased by 18% in 2021 compared to the previous year due to business growth. A report by Pacific Environment and Stand.earth ranked Amazon eighth globally in terms of climate pollution through the maritime transport of its products. Other studies have placed the company under scrutiny for plastic pollution as well as the emissions generated by its website servers.
Cabrera Solar photovoltaic complex near Seville, Spain
Splitting up the plants
As part of a joint investigation with the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, La Marea has visited the three active renewable projects currently supplying the American company. In all cases, the projects exceed the capacity of 50 MW, which should be authorized by the Ministry for Ecological Transition. But all of them have only been approved by the autonomous communities in which they are located, which should only authorize projects of less than 50 MW.
This is possible because the projects have been split into different sections to avoid exceeding that limit, even though the different plants together form a compact whole. For example, the Cabrera Solar photovoltaic complex in Seville, as explained on the operator's website, has an installed capacity of 200 MW. However, the project was divided into four parts to pass the regional filters.
In Zaragoza, the Vendimia Project, with 247 MW of installed capacity, was divided into five plants of 49.5 MW for the same purpose. San Serván 400 in Mérida is "a 150 MW cluster ... with three 50 MW photovoltaic plants," as acknowledged on the company's website.
"There are opportunistic companies that obtain the project with the sole aim of selling it as soon as possible."
According to various specialists, the division of large renewable macro-projects is a common and legal practice if the authorizations for the different photovoltaic plants are requested using different companies, as is the case with all those mentioned.
But if the cumulative impacts of the entire complex are not considered, then there are environmental risks. Abel La Calle, a professor of Environmental Law at the University of Almeria and president of the New Culture of Water Foundation, believes that dividing plants is a type of legal fraud, "since a specific tactic is being used to change the competent authority in the project's evaluation."
La Calle also explains that in this way, the full assessment of the main environmental impact of the projects is "avoided." "In the case of environmental impacts, one plus one plus one doesn't result in three, but it can result in 10 due to their accumulation," he says.
The professor believes that the Ministry for the Ecological Transition would be failing in its duties by not challenging all the divided projects that should have been authorized by the central administration and not the regional one. The Ministry for the Ecological Transition has declined to comment on this matter.
The projects in Seville and Zaragoza are a clear example of the business speculation surrounding renewable energy generation technologies. Both solar complexes have changed owners and/or operators since they began operating. According to La Calle, this is a "very common" practice in the Spanish renewable energy market: "There are opportunistic companies that obtain the project with the sole aim of selling it as soon as possible, making a substantial profit from that sale."
At the end of the year, the Spanish government relaxed its law to expedite the procedures for green projects. Javier García Breva, former director general of the Institute for the Diversification and Saving of Energy, described the move as the triumph of "speculative renewables."
This process mainly affects sparsely populated areas of Spain, which are the most attractive to large renewable energy companies due to the availability of cheap land. It is also due to the supposed lack of social resistance, which makes it easier to undertake some projects that would be more challenging in other locations.
This was acknowledged in the environmental impact statement for Almochuel, which admitted "the generation of effects on the fragility of the landscape in the area." However, "the lack of population in the surrounding towns means that the number of observers is low" — qualifying depopulation as good news.
This report is part of a joint investigation between La Marea and the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, with funding from Journalismfund Europe.
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