By Camille Serre and Alexander Ochs

After having shed some light on French climate and energy legislation, let’s proceed with our review of European progress toward clean energy economies. Typically, the Scandinavian countries and Germany have set the example in the European renewables field. Yet lately, a Southern country—Portugal—has attracted media attention after delivering its National Renewable Energy Action Plan to the European Commission this June.

Portugal has made dramatic changes in its energy policy over the last five years under the government of Prime Minister Jose Socrates. The country’s installed renewable energy capacity more than tripled between 2004 and 2009, from 1,220 megawatts (MW) to 4,307 MW, and renewables now represent roughly 36 percent of electricity consumed. Thanks to this performance, Portugal currently ranks 4th in Europe in energy production from renewables. Socrates seems to know what he is doing, and it looks like his previous experience has paid off. Like Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, Socrates was Minister of the Environment before becoming head of his country’s government. The environment seems to be a springboard for European politicians’ careers.

In 2009, Portugal ranked 3rd in Europe in wind power capacity per capita - Flickr Creative Commons / Mafalda Moreira Santos

Of course, Portugal benefits from favorable conditions for renewables as well: a strong wind resource, great hydropower, good tidal waves potential, and a high sunshine rate. After the country removed several dams in recent years, Socrates’ government has focused instead on wind power development, under most conditions the cheapest renewable energy source after hydropower. With spectacular growth in wind energy production of over 600 percent between 2004 and 2009, Portugal now ranks 6th in Europe in total installed capacity and 3rd in capacity per capita, behind only Denmark and Spain. Some even expect Portugal to overtake its neighbor Spain in per capita wind energy production as early as this year.

Additionally, Portugal is starting to exploit its solar potential. A photovoltaic (PV) power station located in Moura, operative since 2008 and expected to be fully completed by the end of 2010, will count among the world’s largest solar farms. But despite a great progression of installed PV capacity in Portugal (from 1 MW in 2000 to 75 MW in 2009), solar power still lags far behind wind’s installed capacity of 3,353 MW. Portugal also deploys other renewable energies, albeit at a much smaller scale. Biomass and biogas represented 3.2 percent of total consumed electricity in 2009, and the world’s first shoreline wave power plant has been operating since 2005 on the island of Pico in the Azores, with 400 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of capacity.

How did Portugal assume such impressive leadership in the clean energy transition? The key, as usual, lies in ambitious supportive policies. According to New York Times contributor Elisabeth Rosenthal, prior to 2000 Portugal’s transmission lines were owned by private power companies that had no interest in investing in renewables, as the deployment of these technologies would require radical changes in the grid infrastructure, and therefore raise costs. To address this barrier, the government bought the lines and began adapting the grid to renewables requirements, including more flexibility and a better grid connection in remote areas to allow the production and distribution of electricity from small generators, such as domestic solar panels.

A combination of incentives was implemented to attract investors. Feed-in tariffs (FIT) – which guarantee producers of renewable energy a specified price for every megawatt-hour of power fed into the grid – were first introduced in Portugal in 1988, and have increasingly evolved into a highly sophisticated system with individual prices for each renewable energy source. The latest tariff stipulations were issued in 2005 and 2007 and take into account environmental considerations, the level of technology development, and the inflation rate. The government also integrated new technologies such as Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) and tidal power into the system.

Today, all renewable energy sources in Portugal benefit from the FIT for 15 years, and small hydropower prices are even guaranteed for 20 years. The tariffs vary from around 7.5 Euro cents (around 9.5 U.S. cents) per kWh for wind and hydro up to over 30 Euro cents (38 U.S. cents) per kWh for photovoltaic energy. Renewable heating and cooling is also supported under conditions by financial and fiscal incentives, largely for the benefit of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Read more on the future of renewables in Portugal, soon on ReVolt!

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clean energy, climate, Climate Change, climate legislation, energy, Europe, feed-in tariffs, low-carbon, Portugal, renewable energy, solar power, wave power, wind turbines