Portugal’s Alternative Energy Revolution

Outside Lisbon, 2008

It isn’t hard to find things that don’t work correctly in Portugal.  It also isn’t hard to find people who will go on and on about how the prime minister is a bum and a crook. Indeed Portugal has plenty of problems as a nation with high unemployment, a disappearing rural population, and unsustainable metropolitan centers.

So it may come as a surprise after all this, to learn that Portugal is a global leader in alternative energy. More specifically, as of this year the country gets 45% of its total energy from renewable resources like wind, solar, wave and hydro.  Besides being an impressive number it is even more eye opening when you learn that this is a 28% increase from 5 years ago.  And just when you thought you’d already been impressed, you will find that -in fact- Portugal has become one of the largest (if not THE largest) wind energy producers in the United States!

How did this happen? What conditions and factors somehow led to this fairly small and less wealthy European nation become so active in alternative energy?  Here are a few reasons:

Despite a very low approval rating now, when his party was elected with a parliamentary majority in 2005, Prime Minister José Socrates and his cabinet set their sites on major investments in renewable energy, even under huge warnings that it would cost too much money.  5 years, many landmark projects,  and 13.6 billion euros later, Portugal has developed energy production and a smart grid that most of the world only talks about having one day.  The nation is now in a position to decommission 2 coal power plants and even sold energy to Spain this year. In the next few years they will roll out the world’s first nation wide electric car and charging station network. They also expect their percentage of electricity produced by renewable sources to be 60% by 2020.

Sure there are questions and a whole lot of concerns about what has happened in Portugal.  The biggest being the high price of electricity in the country.  Or what will happen if private investors and private energy companies get into financial problems, will the windmills, solar panels, tidal machines, and hydro-electric power plants still be run and maintained?

In the short term people may look at their energy bills and feel like they have been wronged.  The government may be accused or in fact involved in some scandal eventually resulting in it being voted out of office.  The achievements of Portugal may always be overshadowed by large nations like the US and China being unwilling and unable to take bold steps towards an efficient and environmentally sustainable energy system.   Yet despite all the criticism that has come and may come one day, especially in the political and economic realm, Portugal has accomplished an amazing feat in the quest to reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.