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Q&A: Portugal’s ‘Mayor of the Future’ in Green Energy

Interview with Mayor José Maria Prazeres Pós-de-Mina

MOURA, Portugal, May 13 2008 (IPS) - He is mayor of one of Portugal’s smallest and poorest municipalities. But his perseverance in using solar energy to drive development in his region has brought José Maria Prazeres Pós-de-Mina attention from the rest of the country and from other members of the European Union (EU).

Mayor since 1998 of a pioneer municipality that will soon house the world’s largest solar energy station, Pós-de-Mina sees no contradiction between his academic background in business management and his position as a leader of Portugal’s Communist Party, which has deep roots in the southern region of Alentejo, the least developed part of the country.

Six years ago, "the mayor of the future," as he is frequently referred to, even in other European countries, founded the Amper Central Solar SA company to put into practice his initiative, taking up the challenge launched by European Union authorities to meet the bloc’s immense energy needs in a more sustainable, efficient and ecological fashion.

In 2006, he sold Amper to the Spanish company Acciona SA, a world leader in renewable energy sources.

The municipality of Moura, which encompasses the town of that name and eight villages, has a population of just 16,500

Pós-de-Mina’s ecological dream took shape near the village of Ameraleja, where the solar energy plant that will soon be the world’s biggest began to function in March.

With 100 hectares of solar panels, the station will have a full production capacity of 46.4 megawatts (MW) in 2009, and 62 MW in 2010, when it is fully functioning. Using a new tracking system that follows the sun's path across the sky, the plant will produce 93 gigawatts (GW) hours/year, equivalent to the consumption needs of 30,000 households, by means of 268,000 photovoltaic panels.

In this interview with IPS correspondent Mario de Queiroz, the 50-year-old mayor did not conceal his satisfaction over the inauguration of the plant, which will play a significant role in meeting EU targets on the use of renewable energy sources and which, he said, is also "very positive for local development."

The plant is located in Baldio da Ferraria, a 250-hectare plain near Amareleja, the hottest, sunniest spot in Portugal, the country that receives the most sunlight overall in the EU, followed by Greece and Spain.

But while the Amareleja solar plant will be the biggest, it is not the first, but the fourth solar park built in Portugal over the last five years.

The others are in the southern municipalities of Serpa – whose plant currently produces 11 MW, making it one of the largest in the world – Almodôvar (2.15 MW) and Ferreira do Alentejo (1.8 MW).

IPS: Now it is Moura’s turn, with a plant that will produce more energy than all three of these combined – an ambitious project that has already started to function.

PÓS-DE-MINA: The 2.5 MW being produced since March have already begun to be injected into the main grid, sent to the hydropower plant at Alqueva, 32 km away. But it wasn't easy. We had to overcome tremendous difficulties, given the fact that the size of this plant is unparalleled in the world.

We also built, through Amper-Acciona, a factory of photovoltaic panels, and we created the Moura Technology Park, where renewable energy companies can set up shop.

IPS: Despite Portugal’s unquestionable advantage in terms of its sunny skies, the production of solar energy has until now been more widespread in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, which are among the "cloudiest" countries on the continent.

PDM: It’s true. But now this project, which is important for Moura, and also important because of its contribution to the development of Portugal and its significance in Europe due to its size, will remedy that situation by converting sunlight into 64 million watts.

To this we have to add that for every 90,000 MW of energy produced by the Moura plant, 152,000 tons less of greenhouse gas emissions will be released into the atmosphere, in comparison with an equivalent level of electricity output based on fossil fuels.

IPS: At a cost of 257 million euros (some 410 million dollars)…

PDM: Yes, for a very important project that will put Moura in a leading position at the global level in the renewable energy sector, which could attract other related investments. Besides the solar plant and what it means in terms of respect for the environment, the idea is to give shape to a much more vast initiative, with technological products and initiatives in the area of research.

We will also build a neighbourhood that will take into account worries about sustainability, introducing renewable energy in the buildings while paying attention to energy efficiency.

IPS: Moura has become a reference that is mentioned in specialised publications on the environment and energy. Is there concrete cooperation at the international level?

PDM: We form part of the "Sunflower" initiative on renewable energy, which involves a number of EU cities and environmental groups and is financed by the EU’s Intelligent Energy – Europe programme.

IPS: But it would seem that the closest relationship is with Spain, starting with the granting of the contract for the construction of the solar plant and the photovoltaic panel factory to Spanish companies.

PDM: There was nothing premeditated about that. It was simply the result of a transparent public tendering process, in which the Spanish company Acciona submitted the best proposal. In the selection process, we raised neither hurdles nor favouritism based on nationalities. It was just the market working.

That said, I clarify that we have always paid great attention to cooperation with Spain, and not only in this field. There are several projects in areas like archaeology and culture with neighbouring cities across the border. We have an Association for Cross-Border Cooperation between Spanish and Portuguese municipalities in this region.

Cooperation with Spain is one of the key focuses in our development activities, which we mayors on both sides of the border make use of in applying to EU programmes for financing.

IPS: Certainly your list of innovative ideas has not run out. There has been a flood of criticism of the government of (socialist) Prime Minister José Sócrates as a result of the cuts in municipal budgets.

PDM: Moura aspires to becoming an exporter of cutting-edge technological and green energy equipment, and to that end we have already signed several cooperation agreements with universities, higher learning institutions and research institutes.

And yes it’s true that by implementing the new law on local finances, Lisbon has created serious difficulties for the rest of the country.

In Portugal we have never had a programme of EU funds that was so heavily centralised in the hands of the government, which has the first and last word on public tenders, leaving a very narrow margin for participation in decision-making by city governments.

IPS: In other words, it is necessary to resort to creative alternatives.

PDM: Portugal in general, and our region in particular, have sunshine to spare and even to sell. Since 2000, things have been developing in the direction of renewable energies, which are the future. We took advantage of that situation, presenting our project when these ideas were gaining critical mass, in 2001, and now we have inaugurated the plant.

But although this will be the site of the world’s biggest solar energy plant, in Moura we are modest. We don't intend to give lessons to anyone, but we are aware that our project gave an important boost to the aim of raising awareness on these issues, which are so fundamental to humanity.

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