Development & Aid, Environment, Europe, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-PORTUGAL: New World Capital of Solar Energy

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Apr 15 2004 (IPS) - The sunny valley of Baldio das Ferrarías in southern Portugal, where the village of Ameraleja is located, is the spot that has been chosen for the construction of what is to be the world’s largest solar energy plant.

Decades of scientific research have shown that this part of the district of Moura, in the region of Alentejo, is one of the places on earth with the greatest number of hours of sunlight per year.

In the European Union, Portugal receives the most sunlight overall, followed by Greece and Spain.

Nevertheless, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, three of the ”cloudiest” countries in Europe, have taken a far greater interest in solar energy, while in sunny, windy Portugal, solar and wind energy are used at a very modest level, generating just 1.6 megawatts (MW) of electricity that goes almost exclusively to domestic consumption and small companies.

But the General Directorate of Energy (DGE) hopes to bring about a radical shift by installing more than 100 hectares of solar panels, with a total production capacity of 64 MW. (One MW is equivalent to one million watts).

By converting the rays of the sun into 64 million watts of power, the project will be 12 times larger than the planet’s biggest solar energy plant, which is located in Germany and produces five MW.

Construction of the new plant, which began in February, is to be completed in 2009, despite ”the tremendous difficulties that must be overcome, due to the fact that we are talking about an unparalleled undertaking,” in the words of Moura Mayor José María Pós de Mina.

The project is made possible by an agreement between the DGE, the Portuguese Investment Agency, the AMPER-Central Solar company in which the Moura municipal government holds a majority share, and BP Solar España, from Spain, which will be in charge of installation.

The initial investment involves 10 million euros (around 12.5 million dollars), and the total estimated cost will run to 250 million euros (313 million dollars).

A unit for the manufacture and installation of photovoltaic modules is being built in the current phase of the project, which employs 200 engineers, technicians, administrative staff and workers.

Photovoltaic technology is based on semiconductors that permit the direct transformation of solar radiation into electric power.

Terrestrial applications of solar energy began to take off in the 1970s, during the oil crisis. But in the following decade, international oil prices stabilised, and the enthusiasm surrounding alternative energy technologies began to cool off.

Interest in photovoltaic solutions was revived at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the global conference that gave rise to the institutionalisation of sustainable development.

María Joao Rodrigues, one of the leading Portuguese voices on the subject of alternative energy, writes in a scientific article published in March that photovoltaic technology has remained ”indifferent to the swings in popularity.”

”The photovoltaic industry embryonically established in the 1970s quietly continued its unceasing search to reduce costs and increase efficiency,” says the researcher, who served as environment minister from 1995 to 2000 under the socialist government of Antonio Guterres.

”Compared to other energy technologies, photovoltaic technologies show one of the most dynamic growth curves,” with the volume of production increasing tenfold between 1990 and 2002, representing average annual growth of 22 percent, according to Rodrigues.

The former minister points to the outstanding example of Germany, ”which in 2002 already had cumulative installed capacity of around 220 MW. Other reference points are Switzerland and the Netherlands.”

Rodrigues underlines, however, that in these three countries, ”the markets did not emerge by themselves, but as a result of well-oriented syste matic public policies” aimed at promoting solar energy.

The solar power plant in Ameralejo, which has received a strong welcome from environmentalists, has been described by analysts as one of the biggest challenges faced by Portuguese industry.

The mega-project involves the latest technology, and will provide highly skilled jobs in the region, one of the poorest in Portugal – which is in turn the poorest country in the European Union.

The 100 hectares of solar panels that will capture the rays of the endlessly shining sun in the valley of Baldio das Ferrarías will also lead to the strengthening and restructuring of the local economy, which is heavily dependent on agriculture that is in a deep crisis, generating the highest levels of unemployment and emigration in the country.

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