Sleepy Barão S. João at the centre of a clean-energy transition!

An interesting article appeared in the New York Times on August 9th with the title “Portugal Gives Itself a Clean-Energy Makeover”.

Portugal Clean Energy

The article leads with an image of the wind farm built at Vinha Velha above Barão S. João and visible from AlmaVerde. It makes the point that nearly 45% of the electricity in Portugal’s grid now comes from renewable sources, up from 17% just five years ago. Land-based wind power has grown seven-fold in that time.

This shows what can be achieved in a relatively small but highly motivated country. Compare this with President Obama’s far less ambitious target of having more than 20% of America’s electricity produced from renewable sources by 2025.

But while Portugal has shown that rapid progress is achievable, it also highlights the cost of such a transition. Portugal’s households have long paid around twice what Americans pay for electricity, and prices have risen 15% in the past five years, according to the International Energy Agency. This rise is partly due to the renewable energy programme,.

To force Portugal’s energy transition, the government of José Socrates restructured and privatized former state energy utilities to create a grid better suited to renewable power sources. To lure private companies into Portugal’s new market, the government gave them contracts locking in a stable price for 15 years – a subsidy that varied by technology and that was initially high, but decreased with each new contract round.

This strategy was motivated by the fact that Portugal has little fossil fuel of its own, while the EU emissions trading system discourages fossil fuel use by requiring industry to pay for excessive carbon emissions.

Portugal was well poised to undertake the transition, because of its large and untapped sources of wind and hydro power, the two most cost-effective renewable sources. Neither has it required any increases in taxes or public debt precisely because the new, free and clean energy sources have replaced previously imported, expensive and polluting gas and oil.

There are major obstacles in the way of a similar move in the United States, including a fragmented grid poorly suited to renewable energy, a historic reliance on cheap fossil fuels, and powerful entrenched oil and coal lobbies.

With a rising standard of living, Portugal was also highly motivated to reduce its dependence on oil and gas imports, the costs of which had not only doubled in the previous decade, growing to account for 50% of the country’s trade deficit, but were also highly volatile.

Despite the recent increases, domestic electricity prices remain about average for the EU, as do production costs. In 2009, for the first time, Portugal became a net power exporter, sending a small amount of electricity to Spain.

The Barão S. João wind farm has 25 turbines, each capable of producing 2 MW, giving the farm a capacity of 50 MW. The annual estimated production is 125 GWh, equivalent to 2,500 hours of full output, and enough to power 200,000 houses.

The wind farm is equipped with an innovative system, developed by Strix, aimed at preventing the killing of birds. The system monitors movements of migratory birds using radar, and temporarily brings the turbines to a halt if there is a perceived risk of collision. The project pays special attention to the Bonelli’s Eagle, and includes a special monitoring plan to capture and track these magnificent bids using GPS transmitters.

One Response to “Sleepy Barão S. João at the centre of a clean-energy transition!”

  1. JIllian Elsnore  on March 18th, 2011

    This article shows what a small country can do with some investment and grid re-organization that can lead to a considerable payback in the not so distant future. Let’s hope others can follow this worthy example, and soon.

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