The past few years were tough for Portugal with its debt crisis, high unemployment and struggles staying within the Euro Zone. But one success within this nation of 10.5 million people is its ability to harness its abundant wind and hydro resources. In fact, from the morning of Saturday, May 7, until late afternoon on Wednesday, May 11, Portugal ran entirely on renewables such as hydro and wind power.
According to a study commissioned by two Portuguese environmental organizations, Portugal ran 107 consecutive hours without having to use conventional energy such as coal or natural gas. Portugal’s renewable sector also generated enough power to export electricity beyond the country’s borders.
Portugal has seen impressive runs of high renewable power generation in the past. Back in 2013, the country’s grid operator reported that renewables supplied at least 70 percent of the country’s total electricity capacity during the first quarter of that year.
Wind power enjoyed considerable growth in Portugal over the past 15 years. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the country only generated 131 megawatts of electricity from wind in 2001. Since then, Portugal’s wind capacity has grown exponentially, to 2.2 gigawatts in 2007. In 2015, the country’s grid benefited from over 5 gigawatts of wind power.
Financial incentives, primarily feed-in tariffs that date back to the late 1980s, are largely behind Portugal’s impressive growth rate in renewables. While news about the growth of clean energy in Europe tend to focus on countries such as Germany and Denmark, the fact is that Portugal holds its own when compared to other nations on the continent.
What’s impressive about Portugal’s growing clean-energy industry is that — despite the country’s decision in 2012 to reduce financial incentives that encouraged wind power developers to invest in Portugal — the sector continued to add new capacity to the national grid. From 2013 until the end of 2015, the European Wind Energy Association estimates that the country added an additional 500 megawatts of wind power capacity, demonstrating how renewables have become more cost-competitive despite low oil prices worldwide.
But Portugal isn’t the only country to see huge spikes in renewable power generation. One summer day last year, Denmark generated 140 percent of its electricity demand, allowing it to export excess power to neighboring countries. On May 15, Germany generated so much power from renewables that prices for electricity at times turned negative. And during the week of May 9, the United Kingdom did not have to rely on its coal-fired power plants for spells of several hours at a time.
Of course, perfect weather conditions led to Portugal’s ability to keep the lights on without using conventional power. But for a country with almost no oil and gas resources of its own, and a still tiny solar sector that is ripe for development, Portugal shows that sound policy and public support can help a country achieve energy independence even while its financial house is still not entirely in order.
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