THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
New power in Portugal
Country's rapid increase in renewable energy shows promise, but highlights differences with U.S. situation
Ten years ago, political leaders and citizens in Portugal took a careful look at their country's electric power grid. Two big concerns inspired the Portuguese to rethink their energy situation.
If they could reduce their use of fossil fuels, that might lower their emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases. If they could reduce payments to other countries for imported fuels and use domestic resources instead, they might keep more of their money within their own country.
Portugal doesn't have any domestic coal to use to generate electricity. Portugal's natural resources include hardly any fossil fuels, so the country imports a lot of natural gas to generate electricity.
Perched on the southwestern tip of Europe along the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean, Portugal has a different and valuable set of natural resources—plenty of water, sunlight, and wind.
Solar station, wind park lead energy transition
Portugal's democratic government put forward an aggressive plan to develop these local sources for energy production in 2005. About 17 percent of Portugal's electricity came from renewable resources then.
Just five years later, by the end of 2010, Portugal's ability to produce electricity from renewable sources had more than doubled to more than 40 percent, with new developments in solar and wind providing much of the increase.
The new Moura Photovoltaic Solar Power Station is one of the world's largest solar facilities. Covering about 600 acres of land in a remote rural area in eastern Portugal, Moura Station uses thousands of solar panels tilted toward the sun. The setup can supply electricity to about 30,000 homes—when the sun is shining.
Portugal's leap forward with wind energy is even bigger. The Viana do Castelo energy park in northern Portugal is one of the largest land-based wind operations in Europe. The area's mountain slopes and peaks support more than 100 wind turbine towers. The Castelo wind park can supply electricity for about 300,000 homes—when the wind is blowing.
Portugal's drive to increase renewable energy is not just about shiny new technology. To help its power grid adapt to the variable supply of electricity from these large projects, Portugal's government revamped its electric utility system by:
* Restructuring and privatizing parts of the grid infrastructure previously owned by the government.
* Subsidizing and controlling power prices for electricity from renewable sources for a 15-year period.
* Encouraging retraining for grid operators and increasing grid staffing levels.
Portugal plans even more energy innovations. Engineers are developing new devices for offshore wind farms and testing methods to use ocean waves to generate electricity.
Going the distance would be harder for U.S.
The thinking in Portugal is that every kilowatt that comes from a local renewable source is a kilowatt that does not come from an imported fossil fuel. Even if each local renewable source provides electricity for only part of any 24-hour period, that should lower the total amount of fossil fuels Portugal needs to buy during a year, and avoid some emissions, too.
Americans who share these same ideas would like to add a lot of renewable resources in the United States as quickly as Portugal. But there are important differences between the two countries.
The Portuguese electric grid covers a very small geographic area and serves fewer people. Portugal is slightly smaller than Indiana, and has a population of only 10.5 million people.
There's another big difference. The Portuguese grid handles a much lower volume of electricity. Portugal uses about 50 billion kilowatts of electricity a year. The United States uses nearly 80 times more electricity—about 4 trillion kilowatts a year.
The American power grid covers more than 3 million square miles. America's grid already includes almost 6 million miles of transmission and distribution lines.
Adding new high-voltage transmission lines for renewable energy will be complicated. Many of America's sunniest and windiest areas are several states away from major urban areas. Each state along the way has its own set of regulations for utilities. On top of that, federal laws govern everything from safety and reliability standards for electricity, to such environmental concerns as protecting habitats for endangered plants and animals.
Adding renewable energy to the American grid will also change utility company operating expenses. The construction costs of each renewable generating station and the construction costs of the new transmission lines will eventually show up on customers' monthly electric bills.
Global economic conditions, variable yearly weather patterns, and changing prices for imported natural gas make it difficult to determine the exact impact of adding more renewables to Portugal's power grid. The International Energy Agency reports that, during these five years, consumer electricity prices in Portugal have increased 15 percent.
RENEWABLES REQUIRE STATE, FEDERAL COOPERATION
During testimony at a U.S. Senate committee hearing, Glenn English, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, talked about the Eastern Inter-connect, a 30-state region of America's power grid that includes Kentucky.
Making more effective use of renewable energy would require 10,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines costing about $150 billion. English said: "The problem is not, believe it or not, cost. The bottom-line problem is the siting across state lines."
Individual states and the federal government will have to work together to reach practical solutions as they set priorities for adding more renewables to the American power grid.