Wild and free in Portugal (2)

Wave energy is in its relative infancy, but its proponents take heart from the rapid advances of other renewable technologies and the benefits that have flowed from them. Peter Wise reports.

Few areas are registered — 50° Celsius and more. But it is the reliability of Amareleja’s sunlight — an annual average of seven hours a day — rather than its intensity that made the district a natural choice as the site for the world’s largest photovoltaic generating plant.

Built, owned and operated by Acciona, a Spanish construction and energy group, the plant could be mistaken for a set from a big-budget science-fiction movie in which scientists try to make contact with an alien intelligence. In eerie silence, 2,520 solar panels, each bigger in area than the average two-bedroom apartment, slowly track the sun across the sky. Each contains 104 polycrystalline silicon modules, which convert solar radiation into energy.

Solar technology was far less developed in 2001 when local officials first raised the possibility of exploiting the area’s abundance of sunlight to create jobs and revenue in a poor rural area with no industry and few natural resources. Renewable energy was low on the government agenda then and little progress was made until the Pinho plan in 2005 provided the legal framework and the political encouragement to move forward. Acciona was awarded a 15-year licence in 2006, construction began in late 2007 and just over a year later, the plant was connected to the national grid.

Given the vast area covered by the plant, the output of electricity is relatively small: an estimated maximum of 93 million kilowatt hours (kWh) a year, enough to supply 30,000 Portuguese homes and to avoid annual emissions of more than 83,000 tonnes of CO2 from coal-fired power stations. Under the contract, Acciona is contributing three million euros (US$3.9 million) to finance renewable energy research in the region, train young people and supply wind and solar energy generators for homes and small businesses. It is channelling a further 500,000 euros (US$645,000) into the local community.

By far the biggest effect on the local economy, however, has come from 100 new jobs at the solar-panel assembly plant that the company agreed to set up as part of its deal with the government. "An investment like this makes a big difference in a district with about 1,000 people out of work in a population of 16,000," says Francisco Aleixo of Acciona. "The new skills and technology that come with the plant are also vitally important in an area with no industrial tradition."

Creating industrial clusters around clean energy technologies is an essential component of economy minister Manuel Pinho’s plan — and an idea endorsed in theory by everyone from The World Is Flat author Thomas Friedman to the British conservative party leader David Cameron to prime minister Gordon Brown. In the northern port of Viana do Castelo, close to the wind farms of the Alto Minho, workers on the dockside manoeuvre enormous rotor blades, concrete tower segments and other wind turbine components, readying them for shipment.

The parts are produced at four quayside industrial units owned by Germany’s Enercon, a leading wind turbine company that supplies about 40% of the Portuguese market. The plants, which began full production in 2008, will produce about 200 towers and generators and 600 rotor blades a year, 60% for export. Four in 10 of the 1,000 young employees painting blades and casting concrete on the shop floor are women, many of them retrained workers from Portugal’s ailing textile industry.

Over the past four years, Pinho says, Portugal has created 10,000 jobs in the clean-energy sector and he estimates another 22,000 will be added over the next 12 years, the result of 14 billion euros (US$18 billion) due to be invested in renewable energy and related industrial projects. "Industrial policy has a bad reputation in Anglo-Saxon countries, but it can be used for good purposes," he says. "We are already demonstrating the success of the ideas promoted by [US] president [Barack] Obama, the concept of using clean energy to combat climate change, reduce external energy dependency and deliver an important stimulus to the economy."

He acknowledges, however, that wind and solar panel technologies are already too far advanced for Portugal to become a frontrunner in research and development. Instead, Pinho has set his sights on making the country a world leader in the emerging field of wave energy.

In the busy port of Leixões in Porto, Portugal’s northern capital, engineers speaking Portuguese with heavy Scots accents are evidence of this drive. They work for Edinburgh-based Pelamis Wave Power, whose technology is widely considered to be two to three years ahead of competitors in the race to produce electricity from the sea on a large-scale basis. Portugal has designated a maritime zone for wave power projects and signed the world’s first commercial contract to sell wave energy to the national grid with the promoters of the Pelamis project.

Three wave energy converters, linked steel tubes each the size of three railway carriages, have been undergoing operational tests off the small Atlantic beach of Agucadoura, about 40 kilometres north of Porto. Early this year, the red Pelamis converters, named after a mythical sea snake, were towed to Leixões for modifications. "Producing electricity from the sea is the exact opposite of inventing something like the sewing machine," says Rui Barros, a board member of the company responsible for the project. "Rather than a stroke of individual genius, success depends on painstakingly resolving hundreds of small problems until you achieve commercially viable production. It’s a marathon rather than a sprint."

The Pelamis machines generate electricity when waves cause the hinged joints of the semi-submerged cylinders to move, pumping oil at high pressure through hydraulic motors. The main challenge is to build converters that can withstand the aggressive and constant impact of ocean waves. Portugal has the capacity to produce 20% of its electricity needs from waves, says Barros. This would mean installing a capacity of 5,000 megawatts (MW) along 250 kilometres of the country’s coastline (out of a total of 600 kilometres), and would require thousands of converters; the three now in operation have a combined capacity of only 2.25 MW. The government is so far targeting a more modest 250 MW of installed wave capacity by 2020.

But the real prize in the wave-energy race is industrial production. If companies based in Portugal can produce wave energy that is commercially viable in both quantity and price, the country would be well-placed to become a world leader in the technology. Daniel Roos, an engineering systems professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says Portuguese wave-energy researchers are already more advanced than his MIT colleagues. "What North Sea oil and gas did for Scottish industry, wave energy can do for Portugal," says Barros.

He expects environmental and demand pressures to drive the development of wave technology at an even faster pace than wind power. "The need to stop burning carbon fuels and to power electric vehicles will become intense. I’m convinced wave energy will gather momentum very quickly towards large-scale production."

Wave energy is in its relative infancy, but its proponents take heart from the rapid advances of other renewable technologies and the benefits that have flowed from them. Residents of the Alto Minho’s isolated granite villages are already enjoying the fruits of Portugal’s clean-energy revolution. Land rent from wind-farm operators has doubled the annual budgets of local parish councils, which have used the money to restore churches, build football grounds and install new water and sanitation systems.

Unsurprisingly, there is little dissent here from what Pinho says is a national consensus in favour of his ambitious energy plan. In a remote region imbued with the spirit of an ancient past, the turbines looming out of the mist on the summits of the Alto Minho serras address the future.


Turning dams into immense batteries

Water is already a vital source of energy in Portugal in the form of hydroelectric dams. But it is in the combination of wind and hydro power that the greatest potential lies. "The biggest problem facing energy producers is storage," says Antonio Mexia, chief executive of Energias de Portugal, the former state monopoly that is now the country’s largest listed company. If there is no demand for the electricity produced at night by wind turbines, for example, the power is lost.

Mexia says Portugal can radically increase the production potential of both wind and hydro plants by using surplus wind energy to drive water upstream and fill hydroelectric dams. "The dams become batteries which can be managed to produce power on demand regardless of wind conditions."

To this end, Portugal is investing in one of the world’s largest dam-building programmes, spending €3.5 billion (US$4.5 billion) to build 10 new dams and increase the capacity of six others. This will increase hydro capacity from just under 5,000 MW today to more than 8,600 MW by 2020. Portugal currently uses only 55% of its total hydro capacity, one of the lowest levels in Europe. The dam programme will bring this up to the European Union average of more than 70%.

About 20 kilometres from the wind turbines turning on the bleak hilltops of the Alto Minho, the Alto Lindoso hydroelectric dam, one of the biggest in Portugal, towers 330 metres over the Lima River, producing about three times as much electricity as the turbines that make up the largest onshore wind farm in Europe. Working together, their potential is even greater. Close to the Amareleja solar plant, more hydro capacity is being installed at the Alqueva dam, the site of western Europe’s largest reservoir.

Says Manuel Pinho, the economy minister: "For Portugal not to use its enormous potential for hydro, wind and other clean energies would be like Venezuela not using its oil."

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Homepage photo by Pelamis Wave Power