The little nation that could go green - and is

Who would have thought a dictator inspired a renewable energy campaign? That's one explanation for how Portugal has come to embrace clean energy so enthusiastically.
Francisco Aleixo runs the Amareleja Photovoltaic Power Plant in the Moura region of southern Portugal, the largest solar plant of its kind in the world. (Nancy Durham/CBC)

Who would have thought a dictator inspired a renewable energy campaign? That's one explanation for how Portugal has come to embrace clean energy so enthusiastically.

The "sea snake" known as Pelamis waits to be towed to sea in Porto Harbour, Portugal. One snake can supply electricity to around 1,500 homes using wave motion. (Nancy Durham/CBC)

Back in the '50s, Antonio Salazar ruled the then-isolated European nation. To help keep it that way, one of his goals was to make Portugal energy self-sufficient, so he embarked on a massive dam-building project. It made sense: Portugal has no oil or gas reserves of its own.

To this day, hydro power makes up the largest slice of Portugal's fast-growing renewable energy pie. And now the little nation in Europe's southwest corner can also boast about its progress in solar, wind and, most recently, wave power.

Portugal had a goal to produce 30 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2010. Two years ahead of schedule, it is at 42 per cent.

Energized by sea snakes

This remarkable achievement is the result of two key initiatives — the clever use of Portugal's natural resources and its approach to business.

In September, Portugal became the first country to commercially launch Pelamis (an ancient word for sea snake) — a device that generates energy from wave power. It was invented in Scotland, which has yet to get its own "snake" beyond the testing stage.  

The snake is a 150-metre-long red metal contraption that measures 3.5 metres across and is made up of four sections. Wave motion forces the hinges connecting the sections to interact with each other and this in turn produces electricity. A cable along the seabed carries the energy to a substation on shore.

One snake produces enough energy to supply about 1,500 homes. Portugal now has three in operation and 25 more on order.

I join a group of journalists aboard the Corte Real, one of Portugal's navy frigates, to get a closer look at the first snake in action, five kilometres off shore near Porto, in northern Portugal.

"Of course, the Portuguese are very much devoted by tradition and by trade to the sea," explains Admiral Fernando Gomes, head of the Portuguese navy. 

The quest for renewable energy sources is "mandatory for a country that for the moment doesn't have other alternatives. We don't have oil, we don't have gas and we are looking for alternative chances to be more independent," he adds.

Remembering the bottom line

Portugal's man in charge of the renewable energy drive is Manuel Pinho, who joins us aboard. He has the novel title of minister of the economy and innovation.

"We have very clear priorities and we set the right incentives for private investors to come in," he says.

"You have to bring private money. You have to bring universities.… The government should set the incentives and define the framework and also do the marketing and, in some sense, that's what we are doing here today."

This is not just political talk. The Corte Real is crawling with businessmen full of praise for a government that found a way to guarantee them a good return on their investment.

The people of Portugal pay just a tiny premium on their utility bills to help support new technology. And the renewable energy industry in Portugal has created more than 2,000 jobs.

'Flower fields' harvest solar energy 

Sunny Portugal, along with Spain, boasts the most "solar hours" in Europe. The southern region of Moura is home to the largest photovoltaic farm in the world, providing power to tens of thousands of homes.

The farm is made up of 2,520 panels, each one the size of a tennis court, or the "size of the average Lisbon apartment, maybe larger," says Francisco Aleixo, who runs the Amareleja PV Power Plant.

Reporter Nancy Durham films photovoltaic panels at Amareleja in Moura, southern Portugal. (Francisco Aleixo)

When in operation — some are still undergoing tests — each panel tracks the sun throughout the day. When work is finished here, the blue silicon panels should produce enough power to supply 30,000 households.

Photovoltaic solar power works simply. Silicon turns photons from the sun into an electrical current that is gathered and turned into electricity.

"It really is what thrills me. It helps to save the planet. This plant over here saves around 90,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. And I like it very much," says Aleixo.

The panels, sparkling in the glare of the sun, make a sensational sight and it is hard to imagine anyone complaining about their appearance.

"This is a low-impact power plant," says Aleixo, pointing out that the giant angled panels are only 8.5 metres high. "It's not the same as a wind farm. Wind generators are 100 metres high. This is less impact on the landscape."

And Aleixo doesn't see fields of blue panels.

"I see flower fields. Very beautiful plants, very big with yellow leaves" turning with the sun. For him, the panels are sunflowers.

Who has seen the wind?

Wind turbines have opponents in many countries, but few in Portugal. Jose Miguel Oliveira is director of the largest wind farm in Europe, Alto Minho, on Portugal's border with Spain.

Oliveira laughs when asked whether people object to windmills in their backyards. "In Portugal, that principle doesn't apply, because here people want the windmills" because they profit from them.

Communities with wind turbines on their land receive 7,500 euros (almost $12,000) annually for each one. The revenue goes towards community improvements. Oliveira adds that sometimes there are "even conflicts between villages because they say that the windmill is on their land" and not on the other village's.

At dusk, Oliveira takes me to talk with local restaurateur Fernando Gonçalves, who has a bird's-eye view of three wind turbines from his front yard.

"It's good because the energy is ours; it comes from our hills. We benefit from it. It's clean energy.

"The only problem is that it changed the landscape." He'd rather not have them in view, especially at night because of the lights. On this misty evening, the ghostlike turbines are silent because there is no wind, but their red and white lights flash on and off to warn aircraft.

Oliveira shrugs with a smile when he looks at the still wind turbines.  He knows wind cannot be the only option. You can't count on waves every day, either.

Portugal's diverse renewable energy portfolio ensures there are alternatives.