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PORTUGAL: Making Up for Lost Time in Renewable Energy

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Jun 20 2007 (IPS) - For decades, Portugal basically ignored the infinite possibilities proffered by its geographical conditions for producing clean energy. But that is starting to change, and the country is now among those that are putting the strongest emphasis on alternative energy sources.

The most abundant sunlight in Europe, strong winds from the Atlantic Ocean to the west, strong flowing rivers and huge ocean waves have long been disregarded in this South European country, which has chosen instead to pour a large part of its revenues into paying its bulky oil bill.

But Portugal is now one of the countries in the 27-member European Union (EU) with the most ambitious alternative energy goals, having set a target for 45 percent of its electricity to be produced from alternative sources by 2015.

When it took office in March 2005, Portugal’s socialist government, under Prime Minister José Sócrates, an environmental activist in his youth, assumed a commitment to make up for lost time in this area.

Although his government has adopted public spending cuts in sensitive areas like education and health in order to reduce the budget deficit in keeping with euro currency group requirements, Sócrates has approved large public investments in the development of wind and solar energy, hydroelectricity, and wave power, a technology in which Portugal is a world pioneer.

The president of the Association of Renewable Energy Companies, António Sá da Costa, told the Público de Lisboa newspaper’s weekly Economía magazine early this month that the 2012 targets for installed wind and wave energy power would be 5,700 and 250 megawatts (MW), respectively, while the 2015 target for hydropower is 6,200 MW.

Sá da Costa predicted that thanks to the planned investments in wind, hydro and wave energy, renewable sources could account for 60 percent of Portugal’s electricity output by 2020.

Portugal will also have the largest solar energy station in the world, being built in the Baldio das Ferrarías valley near the town of Moura in one of the country’s poorest regions, Alentejo. Moura Mayor José María Pos-de-Mina told IPS that the area was the sunniest in all of Europe, with 2,550 hours of sunlight per year.

The 338 million dollar plant’s 350,000 photovoltaic solar panels will cover a total area of 114 hectares. The station will come on line in December, and by May 2008 will be producing 62 MW, “thereby reducing CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions by 87,500 tons,” said Pos-de-Mina.

“With 62 million watts, our station will be 12 times bigger than what used to be the world’s largest solar plant, which is in Germany and produces only five MW,” added the mayor of Moura, a town that now sees a chance of reverting both its poverty and the growing number of people moving away because, as Pos-de-Mina said, “we are looking at a project that has no parallel in the world.”

The communist mayor, who said he is comfortable navigating “the many-tentacled world of the global market,” founded the Amper company, 88 percent of which is owned by the Moura city government, to design the solar plant project.

Amper then sold the project to the Spanish company Acciona, a world leader in renewable energies, for an unrevealed sum.

But although Moura is not yet functioning, Portugal already has the world’s largest solar energy plant, which opened in April. The Central Solar de Serpa (CSS), also located in the sunny southern region of Alentejo, will generate clean energy for some 8,000 households.

The CSS, which involved an investment of 80 million dollars, has 52,000 solar panels covering 32 hectares, with installed capacity of 11 MW.

According to Italian engineer Piero dal Maso, an executive with Catavento, the Portuguese company that developed the project, the plant will produce 20 gigawatt/hours a year, enough to save more than 30,000 tons of greenhouse gases compared with an equivalent energy production using fossil fuels.

Over the next 15 years, the plant will generate clean energy for the national power grid as part of an association between Catavento, which will manage the solar station, the U.S.-based General Electric, which financed and owns the plant, and Powerlight, a leading global solar power system provider, which will operate and maintain the facility.

With respect to wind energy, by late 2006 there were already 1,055 wind turbines functioning around Portugal, equivalent to 59 percent of the target set for 2010. This year, 536 additional turbines are to be installed.

At the end of last year, the turbines were generating 2,779 MW, over half of the 2012 goal of 5,100 MW.

Meanwhile, in Aguçadoura, on Portugal’s north coast, 2.25 MW of energy produced by ocean waves have been brought ashore by a submarine cable since October, feeding directly into the national distribution grid controlled by the state-run Energias de Portugal (EDP) company.

That is a modest amount of energy, but highly significant as it involves the first power plant in the world to use waves as a source of renewable energy, which has an unpredictable future development potential in the concert of alternative energy sources, whether hydraulic, photovoltaic, wind, geothermal or biomass.

Portugal has thus become the world’s pioneer in the use of wave power, which according to projections by experts could reach an annual global turnover of 50.5 billion dollars within 40 years.

That total is equivalent to 30 percent of Portugal’s 2006 gross domestic product of 166.5 billion dollars. And this country could have a corner on 10 percent of the global wave power market.

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