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ENERGY-PORTUGAL: Riding the Wave of the Future

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Sep 27 2006 (IPS) - Atlantic Ocean waves are to light up 1,500 homes in the north of Portugal. The first 2.25 megawatts of electricity produced from wave power will be brought ashore at Aguçadoura, on the northern coast, as of October.

A submarine cable will bring the electrical energy ashore, and will feed directly into the national distribution grid controlled by the state-run Energias de Portugal (EDP) company.

It is a modest quantity, but it is the first stage of “the first power plant in the world to use waves as a source of renewable energy,” engineer Rui Barros explained to IPS. He is director in charge of new activities at Enersis, the leading Portuguese company in the renewable energy field, which has vast experience in the use of hydraulic, photovoltaic, wind, geothermal and biomass energy sources.

After 10 years of intensive research, funded by the European Union and based on two decades of studies by the Superior Technical Institute in Lisbon, “this project, begun in 2003, is now in the world vanguard,” Barros said.

Barros is convinced that “of all the varieties of renewable energy, perhaps harnessing the waves is the only one where Portugal might have a real future, so long as it can keep ahead of competing countries in what is currently a real technological race.”

“One of our goals at Enersis” is to remain at the forefront of developments in this sector “in the years to come, and not just in the national market,” the engineer added.

According to official estimates by the State Secretariat for Industry and Innovation, revenues from energy produced by wave power could in the next 40 years be equivalent to up to 30 percent of the current gross domestic product (GDP), which stands at 130 billion euros (166.5 billion dollars at the present exchange rate).

These forecasts are in line with those announced last month by Antonio Sarmento, the director of the Wave Energy Centre, who said that Portugal could win a ten percent share of the world technology and equipment market for building this type of “wave farms”, estimated at about 385 billion dollars.

The Aguçadoura project was launched last spring, with the announcement of a pilot phase for commercial production, using the ocean waves as a renewable energy source. This date coincided with the start of activities by the Italian National Electricity Company (ENEL), which was also beginning to generate energy from the sea.

The Portuguese are using Atlantic Ocean waves, which are larger and more powerful than those of the Mediterranean Sea, while the Italian project aims at capturing the energy of the strong currents in the straits of Messina, between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland.

The Portuguese wave farm was planned and built offshore, eight kilometres from the beach at Aguçadoura, by Ocean Power Delivery (OPD), a Scottish firm which, Barros said, “has operated in this market since 1997, and has achieved a level of know-how that is unrivalled in the world.”

The first assembly phase was carried out in naval shipyards at Peniche, 120 kilometres north of Lisbon. Three enormous “Pelamis” tubes were assembled, 142 metres long and 3.5 metres in diameter, which have been installed eight kilometres from the coast to capture wave energy, to be transmitted to the mainland via submarine cables.

There the semi-submerged tubes float, and rise, fall and rock. Each Pelamis cylinder is divided into three sections, and works as a wave energy converter module.

Inside the modules there is a system of high-pressure hydraulic pumps, which are activated by the wave-generated movement of the tubular structure.

The hydraulic action starts the three generators, each of which can produce 750 kilowatts of electrical energy when operating optimally. This is first accumulated, and then transmitted by submarine cables to the mainland, where it is fed into the EDP grid..

Arguments in favour of developing wave energy are based on Portugal’s geographical location and conditions. The powerful wave action on the Atlantic coast, and the ability to forecast the strength and size of the waves up to six days in advance, making it easy to plan levels of energy production, are the main advantages pointed out by supporters of the development of wave power.

Experts on renewable energy sources have calculated that because of these characteristics, a wave farm in Portugal could yield three times the electricity produced by a wind turbine park, for the same investment cost.

In spite of being an extremely sunny, windy country, solar and wind energy have only been used at very modest levels in Portugal, producing 1.6 megawatts, almost exclusively for households and small businesses.

But in April 2004, Portugal took its first steps towards a radical turnaround of this situation, and started building 100 hectares of solar panels, with a potential yield of 64 megawatts.

The project will produce 12 times more energy than what was previously the largest solar power generating station in the world, which is located in Germany and produces five megawatts.

And until 2004, Portugal was rated among the last EU countries in terms of wind power, with little more than token production.

However, between 2004 and 2006, several wind farms were built in this country of 10 million people, which currently produces 500 megawatts from wind power. That puts it in third place among EU countries, behind Germany (1,808 megawatts) and Spain (1,764 megawatts), and ahead of Italy (452 megawatts).

Following the decision to install solar panels two years ago, and the marked increase in the generating potential of wind farms, this pilot project for the first wave farm has emerged as part of a new energy policy. “If the government does not delay the licensing process, we plan to proceed with another 28 tubular structures within a year, so as to reach a yield of 22.5 megawatts,” Barros explained.

In order to complete the additional wave farms, an estimated investment of 90 to 98 million dollars is required. Fifteen percent of this will come from public funds, and the rest from bank loans and from the partnership established between Ocean Power Delivery and Enersis. Once this target is met, the electricity needs of 15,000 families could be covered, resulting in “a saving of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere equivalent to 60,000 tons a year,” the engineer said.

The Portuguese energy authority agreed that EDP would back Enersis in developing wave energy, in compensation for the financial sacrifices involved in what is considered to be a high-risk investment, because according to Barros, “so far, nobody has ever managed to sell energy harvested from waves.”

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