While Europe is taking greater and bolder steps towards renewable energy, Portugal has taken a leap: it is the newest country in the European Union to completely give up the use of coal.
In the small town of Pego, in central Portugal some 120 kilometers (70 miles) away from Lisbon, the smoke stacks and cooling towers of the country’s longest-lived coal power plant peer towards the sky. But no smoke has been seen emerging from these stacks for one year now. The plan was shut down last November, after more than 30 years of operation.
It was closed down eight years sooner than planned and just a few months after the Sines coal plant — and it was the last coal-fired power plant to operate in the country.
Closed for coal
Authorities in Lisbon will be sharing their experience with the transition away from coal at November’s COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt. Portugal is one of a few European states that have completely given up the use of coal; Belgium and Sweden are the only other two.
However, while both Sweden and Belgium have had the luxury of making the transition away from coal in times of abundance, Portugal made it against the backdrop of the Ukraine war and the energy crisis this has caused in Europe. Other countries such as Austria have reversed their efforts to close down coal-fired plants due to this crisis.
That being said, Portugal’s Environment Minister Duarte Cordeiro said in September that the government “remains convinced that it will not be necessary to renege on this decision”.
The two coal plants shut down this year account for nearly 20% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In order to make up for their energy output, authorities in Lisbon hope to continue investing in and developing the country’s green energy sector. Their target is for green energy to supply 80% of the country’s electricity by 2026, up from 40% in 2017. Progress in this regard seems good, as renewable energy represented 60% of the country’s energy makeup in 2021. Portugal is focusing on wind power and solar energy, currently ranking 8th and 13th in Europe, respectively, in raw production of energy from these sectors.
The Pego coal plant will be transformed into a solar power, wind energy, and green hydrogen production complex by 2025. By itself, this site is estimated to increase Portugal’s solar power production by 50% to three gigawatts. And, if everything goes to plan, that solar power capacity should be fully installed by the end of 2022.
Until Portugal reaches its renewable energy targets, it will rely on natural gas plants “which are one-third less polluting than coal”, according to Nunes, to make up the difference. Efforts to support this transition, and preparation for the event, have been underway for a long time. For example, a natural gas-fired combined cycle power plant has been running at the Pego site since 2011 in anticipation of the coal-fired plant being taken offline — and it is just one of many.
While this is a laudable move for Portugal, it is one that is vital for humanity as a whole. On Tuesday, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization called for a doubling in the global capacity of renewable energy by 2030 in a bid to prevent climate change from undermining global energy security.
Electricity generation, the Organization explained, is not only a major source of greenhouse gases that drive climate change but is itself very vulnerable to the effects of a warmer world.
It remains to be seen how well Portugal will be able to weather the transition, given the current economic and political realities. The plan to move away from coal is not without its detractors, and the country has been increasing electricity imports from neighboring Spain to cover gaps in its own production — energy that is still being produced from coal.
Still, while not everything seems to be falling into place in an ideal fashion, this transition is a very good step for the country and humanity as a whole.
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