A Guardian CIF article on the Portuguese renewable energy sector
As Peter Beaumont recently wrote in the Observer, the British government has been looking to Portugal for new thinking on drugs policy. Lisbon has embarked on an unconventional but integrated approach – involving its health, local government and social care institutions – to treat abuse and addiction without focusing on criminality. The UK is now asking for advice, wanting to learn from Portugal’s achievements.
There is something else that Britain can learn from one of its favourite holiday destinations, and that is a similarly integrated approach to renewable energy – particularly in terms of solar, wind and hydropower.
Of course, Portugal’s energy industry benefits from a favourable climate. That climate is one of many reasons I relocated here, with its abundance of warm weather, beautiful beaches, and proximity to nature. Lisbon is sun-scorched for half the year, while London gets hysterical for 30 days of summer.
But, even if the weather is bad most of the time, the UK also has its own favourable conditions. It has 10 times more coastline and benefits from plenty of wind throughout the year. If Portugal can increase its reliance on green electricity from 17% to 45% in just five years, our own leaders have little excuse for our measly 3%.
There is no denying that renewable energy is expensive – it is a common complaint here in Lisbon, where residents have seen their electricity bills rise nearly 16% in the last five years. But as the initial investment expense decreases, and as the nature of fuel-free energy sources entails little maintenance costs, prices will plateau and eventually decrease.
Meanwhile, British households have also faced a big rise in their bills – 14% – in the same five-year period, to the great delight of shareholders of private British energy firms.
Ten years ago, Portugal’s transmission lines were also owned by private power companies that had no interest in investing in renewables because using the technology would have meant radical changes in the grid infrastructure, increasing costs to industry.
To get around this, the government bought the lines, and began adapting the grid, including more flexibility and better connections in remote areas to allow the production and distribution of electricity from small generators, such as domestic solar panels. There was also a combination of admirable incentives, including the introduction of feed-in tariffs – something the British coalition government wants to get rid of.
Due to the decline in North Sea production, and the increasing costs of mining and using coal, the UK is expected to become a major importer of oil and gas by 2015. Meanwhile Portugal, which has no fossil fuels of its own, has harnessed its natural resources to produce its own energy that is clean, safe and domestically controlled. Once almost completely reliant on fossil fuel imports that accounted for half of the national trade deficit, the government says that by 2014 projects such as the Alto Minho windfarm, Moura solar power station and Aguçadora wave park will allow the country to shut down two conventional power plants and reduce operations at other facilities.
An added bonus is that Portuguese engineers and companies are now global players because of their innovations. EDP Renováveis, first listed on stock exchanges in 2008, is the third largest company in the world in wind-generated electricity output. This year it signed contracts in the US to sell electricity from its wind farm in Iowa to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Portugal is a country that many had written off as the European debt crisis hit. But, like its joined-up thinking on drug policy, Portugal’s energy solutions have come about by applying intellectual resources to produce a realistic and smart energy grid that will, hopefully, see financial benefits too.
The UK coastline stretches for 11,073 miles, compared with Portugal’s 1,114 – giving it ample space to explore offshore wind and hydropower, backed up by its already existing fossil fuel generation. Though it is taking steps towards producing more clean electricity, the government’s impending public sector cuts mean many vital projects, incentives and green jobs are at serious risk.
Portugal’s next target is 60% renewable energy by 2020 – with its track record, this goal should be plain sailing. Perhaps Britain should be asking for more advice.