Portugal's rush to renewables places
it in front line of EU's energy makeover
Mar 11, 2008 - Barry Hatton - The Associated
Broad fields of giant solar panels as big as houses
tilt toward the sun in this torrid patch of the
Arranged in tidy rows, like the vineyards and
olive groves that quilt the typical Portuguese landscape,
the panels belong to a solar power plant that comes
on line this month and is due to be the world's
largest when it is completed later this year.
Portugal, one of the European Union's least conspicuous
countries, is in the vanguard of the continent's
rush to harness renewable energy. Despite its frail
economy, it is one of eight EU countries whose push
into clean technology has enabled a double-digit
share of electricity consumption from green sources.
The EU wants clean power sources to furnish 20
percent of the bloc's energy by 2020, up from 8.5
percent in 2005 - and the Amareleja project is at
the forefront of that mission.
More than 2,500 gray-blue solar panels are being
assembled over 250 hectares - roughly 350 soccer
fields - in this town of about 3,000 people that
sits in one of Europe's hottest spots. Each panel
measures 13 meters by 8 meters (43 by 26 feet) and
weighs more than 2 tonnes (2.2 US tons). Like sunflowers
the panels follow the sun, swiveling on thick metal
stems. When complete, the euro260 million (US$396
million) project will provide power for some 30,000
Not far from Amareleja, a dam that will create
Europe's largest man-made lake when it fills up
is already pumping electricity into the national
grid. Ten other new dams are planned. On Portugal's
Atlantic coast, a pioneering wave energy project
waits to be deployed within months.
In the country's hilly north, Europe's largest
wind farm will be ready by the end of the year.
Portuguese authorities claimed the highest EU growth
rate in wind energy production between 2005-06,
when the country posted a fourfold increase. Approved
wind farm projects are slated to power 750,000 homes.
By the end of last year energy from renewable sources
accounted for just over 40 percent of the electricity
consumed in Portugal, a country of 10.6 million
people with plenty of sunshine, big rivers and a
"Not taking advantage of our resources such as
water and the wind would be like Venezuela not taking
advantage of its oil," Economy and Innovation Minister
Manuel Pinho said.
Portugal didn't need much encouragement. With no
coal, oil or gas of its own, the country imports
more than 80 percent of its energy needs, including
for transport. High oil prices have further squeezed
an already pinched economy.
The government has made renewable energy a priority.
It is providing grants and subsidies to companies
investing in the sector.
Anticipated rewards of the clean energy sector
include an expected 10,000 new jobs and forecast
investments of euro8 billion (US$12.1 billion) between
2007 and 2012.
That's welcome news in this easygoing nation which
at the turn of the century discovered it was an
analogue country in a digital age. Gross domestic
product per capita has dropped to around 71 percent
of the European Union average, down from a peak
of 80 percent in 2000, as Portugal failed to keep
pace with a changing world. Its jobless rate of
8.3 percent is the fifth-highest in the EU.
Portuguese companies, traditionally viewed as international
lightweights, are getting a lift from the rising
tide of clean energy investments. Utility company
EDP Energias de Portugal SA last year agreed to
pay $2.15 billion (euro1.4 billion) to buy Houston-based
Horizon Wind Energy LLC, making it an intercontinental
The 27-nation bloc's progress in harnessing alternative
energy sources has been "patchy," says Oliver Schaefer,
policy director of the Brussels-based European Renewable
Energy Council, an industry group.
"Some countries are clearly lagging behind," he
A few bigger European countries, such as Britain
and Italy, currently tap renewables for only around
five percent of their needs.
Countries which have embraced the makeover include
Sweden, Denmark, Spain and Austria.
Investors in expensive new technology will likely
need state-funded incentives for some time, analysts
say. In the Netherlands, for example, electricity
produced by renewable sources slipped back to 2.4
percent of the national total last year, down from
2.7 percent the previous year, after the government
scrapped state grants for new projects.
In Amareleja, a town previously best known for
its rustic solitude, the local council got the ball
rolling with public funds and later sold the project
to Spanish company Acciona.
The plant has brought 200 jobs and has given a
new lease of life to one of Europe's poorest regions.
"It's given the whole town a lift," says Manuel
Cipriano Ramalho, president of the Amareleja parish
council. "We're all for it."
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