As the UN steps up calls to make the switch to renewable energy to fight the global climate emergency, Portugal is among the first EU countries to abandon coal.
It is to share the lessons it has learned so far at next month’s COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt.
It has been nearly a year since smoke has trailed up from the cooling towers of the coal plant in Pego, 120km northeast of the capital, Lisbon.
The lights are off at the station and the dust gathering on the steel structure attests to the fact that the last coal plant in Portugal shut down in November last year after 30 years in service.
The authorities in Lisbon shut down the fossil-fuel plant eight years sooner than planned — and just months after the Sines coal plant, about 90km south of Lisbon, closed at the start of last year.
Portugal is one of a handful of EU member states — along with Belgium and Sweden — to have renounced coal as an energy source.
The energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Austria to reverse a previous decision to close coal-fired plants.
However, Portugal “remains convinced that it will not be necessary to renege on this decision,” Portuguese Minister of Environment and Climate Action Duarte Cordeiro said last month.
“Portugal is an example in Europe,” said Pedro Nunes, an expert in renewable energy at the University of Lisbon and policy officer with the environmental group Zero.
The two coal plants recently closed accounted for nearly 20 percent of Portugal’s greenhouse gases, he said.
To replace coal’s contribution to electricity production, the government hopes to continue developing its green energy to provide 80 percent of its energy by 2026, up from 40 percent in 2017.
If the share of renewables in electrical output hit nearly 60 percent last year, the figure dropped back to 40 percent this year owing to a historic drought, which slashed hydroelectric power.
The UN’s World Meteorological Organization on Tuesday last week called for the world to double the supply of electricity from renewables by 2030 to prevent climate change from undermining global energy security.
Electricity has not only been a major source of carbon emissions driving climate change, but it is also vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet, the organization said.
Portugal is aiming to increase its wind power and solar capacity — it ranks eighth and 13th respectively in Europe.
However, it remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, which accounted for 71 percent of its energy mix in 2020, according to Eurostat.
In this transition phase, the strategy “initially passes via electricity produced by gas plants, which are one-third less polluting than coal,” Nunes said.
Portugal has used natural gas-fired combined cycle power plants like the one running since 2011 on the Pego site, next to the decommissioned coal plant. It is scheduled to run until 2035.
“It’s not by chance” that Portugal has been among the first in Europe to abandon coal, said Pedro Almeida Fernandes, tasked with renewable energies for the Portuguese subsidiary of Spain’s Endesa.
The country has been preparing for its energy transition “for a long time,” he said.
Endesa won the contract to reconvert by 2025 the Pego coal plant into a complex combining solar power, wind energy and green hydrogen. This is, after all, a place that enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year.
With that kind of resource, Portugal aims to increase solar power production by 50 percent to 3 gigawatts this year, a government estimate showed.
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