John Vidal

Energy project also includes wave and wind power

LISBON: From a distance, the bizarre structures sprouting from the high Alentejo plain in eastern Portugal resemble a field of mechanical sunflowers. Each of the 2,520 giant solar panels is the size of a house and they are as technically sophisticated as a car. Their reflective heads tilt to the sky at a permanent 45 degrees as they track the Sun through 240 degrees every day.

The world’s largest solar photovoltaic farm, generating electricity straight from sunlight, is taking shape near Moura, a small town in a thinly populated and impoverished region which boasts the most sunshine per square metre a year in Europe.

When fully commissioned later this year, the farm set on abandoned state-owned land will be twice the size of any other similar project in the world, covering an area nearly twice the size of London’s Hyde Park. It is expected to supply 45 MW of electricity each year, enough to power 30,000 homes.

Portugal, without its own oil, coal or gas and with no expertise in nuclear power, is pitching to lead Europe’s clean-tech revolution with some of the most ambitious targets and timetables for renewables. Its intention, Economics Minister Manuel Pinho said was to wean itself off oil and within a decade set up a low-carbon economy in response to high oil prices and climate change.

“We have to reduce our dependence on oil and gas,” said Mr. Pinho. “What seemed extravagant in 2004 when we decided to go for renewables now seems to have been a very good decision,” he added.

He expected Portugal to generate 31 per cent of all its energy from clean sources by 2020. This means lifting its renewable electricity share from 20 per cent in 2005 to 60 per cent in 2020. Having passed its target for 2010 it could soon top the E.U. renewables league.

In less than three years, Portugal has trebled its hydropower capacity, quadrupled its wind power, and is investing in flagship wave and photovoltaic plants. Encouraged by long-term guarantees of prices by the state, and not delayed by planning laws or government indecision, it has proved a success. However, Portugal said it wanted to develop a renewables industry to rival Denmark or Japan. When the government invited companies for tenders to supply wind, solar and wave power, it demanded they work with manufacturing companies to establish clusters of industries. This is a great success, said regional governments. In northern Portugal, where the world’s biggest wind farm with more than 130 turbines is now being strung across the Spanish border, a German firm employs more 1,200 people building 600 40-metre-long fibreglass wind turbine blades a year.

The turbines are earmarked for Portuguese farms first, but orders are being taken from Britain and other countries. Half the workforce consists of women employees.

Portuguese plans for wave power are prompting the most interest in Europe. The world’s first commercial wave farm is being assembled near Porto.

Three “sea snakes,” developed by the Scotland-based Pelamis Company, will shortly be towed out to sea and will start pumping modest amounts of electricity into the grid later this year. It is the start of a potentially giant global industry with Portuguese firm Enersis.

Mr. Pinho dismisses nuclear power. “Countries that do not invest in renewables will pay a high price in future. The cost of inaction is very high indeed. The perception that renewable energy is very expensive is changing every day as the oil price goes up.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008