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PORTUGAL: Mega Solar Power Plant Begins to Operate

Mario de Queiroz

AMARELEJA, Portugal, Dec 30 2008 (IPS) - The most ambitious and innovative solar power project in the world kicked off Monday in this white-walled village in the southern Portuguese municipality of Moura, one of the most impoverished areas in the European Union.

The Acciona Energy S.A. company has put into service the Amareleja photovoltaic power plant, located 150 km south of Lisbon, which is capable of producing enough energy to supply 30,000 households in the south-central region of Alentejo.

Almost simultaneously, the mayor of Moura, José María Prazeres Pós-de-Mina, was selected as one of the ten finalists for the prestigious 2008 People of the Year award granted by OneWorld, a non-governmental news network that is one of the most highly-respected international organisations devoted to raising environmental awareness and promoting change.

The only requirement for nomination was that the candidates embody the values of OneWorld, which include human rights for all, fair distribution of the world’s natural and economic resources, simple and sustainable ways of life, the right of every individual to inform and be informed, participation and transparency in decision-making, and social, cultural, and linguistic diversity.

Pós-de-Mina, who was born 50 years ago in Pías, another village in the municipality of Moura, keeps a low profile, but has nevertheless become famous throughout Europe as “the mayor of the future” for his pioneering work in renewable energy.

The grandson, son and nephew of prominent anti-fascist activists who were persecuted and incarcerated by Portugal’s 1926-1974 dictatorship, Pós-de-Mina became politically active at an early age when he joined the Union of Communist Students, an organisation that played a major role in the opposition to the dictatorial regime.

But his militant background did not prevent Pós-de-Mina from becoming a skilful businessman, and after earning a BA in business administration he took on the challenge of founding the Amper Solar power company, planting the seed for what is now the world’s largest solar energy plant.

Located in the Baldio da Ferraría, a 250-hectare sun-scorched plain, the plant was built at a cost of 410 million dollars in the sunniest area of Portugal, the European country with the greatest number of sunlight hours per year.

The reputation of this unassuming mayor of a small municipality of Portugal has transcended national borders, as he has come to be known as the architect of the most ambitious renewable energy project in the world. “It all happened without my even realising it,” Pós-de-Mina confessed modestly when he learned that OneWorld described him as “the mayor of the future.”

The Amareleja Power Plant project involves photovoltaic (PV) technology that uses semiconductors to convert the sun’s rays into electric power. Within a year, the plant will have an installed capacity of 46 megawatts (MW).

It is expected to be operating at full capacity by the year 2010, when it will produce 64 MW using 2,520 solar trackers supporting 262 modules with 268,000 PV panels producing 93 gigawatts/hour per year, generating sufficient electricity to power 30,000 homes.

The plant’s solar power production will contribute enormously to helping Portugal meet its greenhouse gas reduction commitments, drastically cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 152,000 tons a year.

“This project is important for Moura and for Alentejo, but it is also important because of its contribution to the development of Portugal and its significance in Europe due to its size, as it will convert sunlight into 64 million watts,” making it 12 times bigger than the largest solar power plant that exists today in the EU, which is located in Germany and produces five million watts, Pós-de-Mina told IPS in a recent interview.

At the same time, the municipality of Moura launched the Sunflower project, which involves a network of eight municipalities from eight different countries in Europe (Bulgaria, Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain) that seek to transform their towns into what the EU calls “Zero Carbon Communities” under its Intelligent Energy – Europe (IEE) programme for the promotion of alternative energy sources.

Sunflower’s goal is to “convert these EU communities into environments free of CO2 emissions by turning them into areas where only renewable energies are used,” Pós-de-Mina added. The idea is to “conduct campaigns to raise awareness on the use of renewable energies and the benefits for the population,” he said.

Pós-de-Mina’s work in Amareleja and the Sunflower project earned him the nomination for the OneWorld award. Both efforts began as a way of finding solutions to the area’s growing economic problems, but eventually turned into pioneer initiatives that serve as encouraging examples for the entire world.

For this pragmatic communist mayor and businessman, harnessing Alentejo’s abundant sunlight seemed like “the most obvious way” to develop alternative renewable energy sources that would in turn create jobs in a region where unemployment – at 15 percent – is twice the national average.

In 2007, the municipality of Moura sold the 88 percent stake it held in Amper Solar – owner of the plant installation rights – to the Spanish company Acciona, which has since become the sole shareholder in the solar plant, after the minority shareholders decided to follow the municipality’s example.

Portugal’s solar, wind, and wave energy projects have received unconditional backing from the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, which seeks to speed up the continent’s transition to a low-CO2 economy.

Until April 2004, Portugal’s solar and wind power generation was very low, in spite of the fact that the country is extremely sunny and windy.

The wind energy generated in Portugal prior to 2007 was in fact practically marginal. At present, this country of 92,000 square kilometres and 10.6 million inhabitants is one of the top wind power generators in the EU.

From 2004 to 2006, several wind power parks were built in Portugal, producing a total of 500 MW and putting this country in third place in the EU, after Germany (357,000 sq km and 82 million inhabitants), which produces 1,808 MW, and Spain (504,000 sq km and 46 million inhabitants), with a production of 1,764 MW, and ahead of Italy (301,000 sq km and 59 million inhabitants), which has a total production of 452 MW.

The change has been so drastic that Portugal went from being at the bottom of the EU’s renewable energy ranking to becoming one of the continent’s leading generators.

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