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Portugal?  Isn’t that a country somewhere near Spain, famous for not supporting Christopher Columbus to find the New World?  Doesn’t it get mentioned with Greece and Italy as the next economy to destroy the euro and bring on another bout of Angela Merkel’s righteous anger?

But Portugal today gets 45% of its energy from renewable resources – wind, hydro, sun and ocean waves – up from 17%  just five years ago, and aiming for 60% by 2020.  The article in the New York Times really did surprise me.  By comparison the US last year produced less than 5% of its energy from renewable resources, and aims for 20 to 25% by 2025 – with much fudging about even getting to that modest goal.

Land-based wind power — this year  deemed “potentially competitive” with fossil fuels by the International Energy Agency in Paris — has expanded sevenfold in Portugal since 2004. And in 2011 Portugal expects to become the first country to inaugurate a national network of charging stations for electric vehicles.

“Broadly, Europe has had great success in this area,” said John Juech, VP at Garten Rothkopf. “But that is the result of huge government support and intervention, and that raises questions about what happens when you have an economic crisis or political change; will these technologies still be sustainable?”

Good question.  But the infrastructure, including a smart grid, will be there, people will be trained, attitudes changed, reliance on imported fuels decreased.  Maybe Portugal will not meet the 60% in 2020 goal, but they are so far ahead already they have won anyway.

“We need to act urgently to avoid irreparable damage to the planet. What seemed extravagant in 2004 when we decided to go for renewables now seems to have been a very good decision”, says Manuel Pinho, Portuguese economic minister. “When you have a programme like ours there is no need for nuclear power. Wind and water are our nuclear power.”  Generated by that big fusion reactor in the sky – smart!

The pictures tell their own story:

The Mora solar site, at 45MW, is one of the largest and most sophisticated in Europe.  It’s small compared to some of the giant 500MW plants planned for the US, but not so shabby compared to the more usual 5 or so MW currently being built.

The Minho wind turbine farm is the largest in Europe with 130 turbines stretched across the hills.

And there is employment.  This German company (front runners get to export their technology) employs some 1200 Portugese – about 50% of them women who lost jobs in the declining textile industry – to make 40m (120 ft) long wind turbine blades.  [All photos: The Guardian/Teri Pengilley]

Of course there are costs – electricity is expensive and some locals don’t like the turbines.  Environmentalists worry about migrating birds.  All valid concerns.  But then – expensive electricity will foster more innovation and drive conservation.  Would we rather have hidden mines and off-shore wells, rather than visible turbines?  The birds?  How many are killed by pollution? Pesticides? Pet cats?

We pay a cost for energy.  Portugal has chosen to pay for renewables.  In the long term it will probably be a wise choice.

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