Is 70 Percent Renewable Power Possible? Portugal Just Did It For 3 Months

Alto Lindoso (Image credit: Energias de Portugal)

Portugal’s electricity network operator announced that renewable energy supplied 70 percent of total consumption in the first quarter of this year. This increase was largely due to favorable weather conditions resulting in increased wind and water flow, as well as lower demand. Portuguese citizens are using less energy and using sources that never run out for the vast majority of what they do use.

  • Hydropower supplied most: Hydroelectric power supplied 37 percent of total electricity — a 312 percent increase compared to last year.
  • Wind turbines broke a record: Wind energy represented 27 percent of the total share, which is 60 percent higher than last year. This is 37 percent above average and good for the highest amount generated by wind in Portugal, ever.
  • 2.3 percent less energy used: Energy consumption has fallen every year since 2010 and is now at 2006 levels. Some of the drop this quarter was due to fewer working days and a warmer winter, but even controlling for those factors, there was still a drop of .4 percent.
  • Not so much solar: Solar energy supplies only .7 percent of total energy demand, according to 2012 figures (Q1 2013 figures were not available for solar). This constitutes 225.5 MW in total photovoltaic capacity.
  • Dropping the fossil fuel habit: Portugal’s electricity had 29 percent less coal and 44 percent less gas in it from 2012 figures. The country must import the fossil fuels it burns.
  • For sale: Portugal exported what would have been 6 percent of total electricity consumption to other countries. It will also be able to sell a chunk of its allotted carbon credits offered by the EU’s carbon trading system.

Actually 70 percent isn’t unheard of for Portugal. For a few hours in 2011, Portugal was entirely run on renewable power. Yet this was the first time so much was sustained for a quarter.

Portugal’s investment in modernizing its electricity grid in 2000 has come in handy. Like in many countries, power companies owned their own transmission lines. What the government did in 2000 was to buy all the lines, creating a publicly owned and traded company to operate them. This was used to create a smart grid that renewable energy producers could connect to (encouraged by government-organized auctions to build new wind and hydro plants). In 2010, the New York Times reported on Portugal’s renewable energy push that started in earnest in 2005:

Five years ago, the leaders of this sun-scorched, wind-swept nation made a bet: To reduce Portugal’s dependence on imported fossil fuels, they embarked on an array of ambitious renewable energy projects — primarily harnessing the country’s wind and hydropower, but also its sunlight and ocean waves…. Nearly 45 percent of the electricity in Portugal’s grid will come from renewable sources this year, up from 17 percent just five years ago.

There was a massive amount of skepticism over the plan at the time. The Prime Minister at the time, José Sócrates, noted that the nation’s network of electric car charging stations elicited ridicule — including former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi who jokingly offered to build him an electric Ferrari. While a totally electric version isn’t available, the fastest Ferrari ever was unveiled last month, and it’s a hybrid.

Some locals complained about higher utility bills or the green economy bypassing them, while others were thrilled. The Mayor of Moura explained that the reason his town got the nation’s largest solar plant was because it “gets the most sun of anywhere in Europe and has lots of useless space.”

So now that it demonstrated the ability to generate 70 percent renewable energy for 3 months, where does Portugal go from here? Oddly enough, it does not have much in the way of offshore wind capacity — only 2 MW. The recent economic situation and austerity programs have endangered not only jobs and commerce, but continued investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles. Yet saving on the cost of having to import fossil fuels will be helpful for decades to come, and as its economy improves, it will have a strong renewable electricity grid to rely upon.

Other countries have been making steps of their own on renewable power production. The U.S. had a record-breaking year for wind energy in 2012, growing by 28 percent. Sweden is looking to have no dependence on oil by 2020. Australia could be looking at 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Global solar power world will soon be a net-positive energy source.

55 Responses to Is 70 Percent Renewable Power Possible? Portugal Just Did It For 3 Months

  1. fj says:


    Something is not impossible if it already exists.

  2. Mark E says:

    Why is hydro considered “renewable”?

    Due to sedimentation, all reservoirs lose their ability to generate power. When that happens, we’re left with a concrete monolith holding back a dead valley buried under 100s of feet of of mud and sand.

    Over 100 years is it preferable to coal? You bet. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the price we pay or the fact that hydro means power-only-for-a-while. It is not indefinitely “renewable”. Is it?

  3. Leif says:

    At least the sediment will make good farm land ad give humanity an opportunity to grow the Green Awakening Economy. The left overs from fossil is ecocide. Take your pick.

  4. Omega Centauri says:

    We have some success closer to home. California ISO has been reported 3-6GW of renewables lately (out of 21=28GW total demand). But what is missing is what CAISO doesn’t count as renewable, gigawatts of old large hydro (some imported), and over a gigawatt of rooftop solar don’t get counted. I’d like someone do an accounting for California where these other “sources” are added inas renewable, and see where we stand.

  5. Bob Lang says:

    27% of total electricity consumption was supplied by intermittent renewables, as hydroelectric is not intermittent. This is no big deal.

  6. LJL says:

    Portugal has to commended. America could do a lot more by utilizing all its vast renewable resources coupled with aggressive conservation. Unfortunately, too many people think saving a buck is more worthwhile than creating an energy sustainable future. People, even dedicated environmentalists refuse to buy hybrid or electric cars because they think it costs too much.

  7. Arizonan says:

    The farmers who live down below the dam will soon be suffering from lack of water, since their river flow will be greatly cut back. Witness what is happening since the building of the Hoover Dam — the Colorado River flow doesn’t even reach the Gulf of Mexico any longer. Nobody in that region has water to irrigate the farms and it has all dried up. It’s not progress.

  8. Nancy says:

    If I were Ruler Of The World, I would not allow a structure to be built unless it was Net Zero Energy. And every south-facing rooftop would be covered with solar panels.

    I shouldn’t be surprised, but looking at the photos of the houses in Mayflower Arkansas surrounded by oozing oil, they have large flat roofs but not a solar panel in sight.

    There are solutions. People are just too lazy to change.

  9. gragor says:

    I see the PoCo’s are complaining that user generated power is wrecking their business model. Less load = less money to put back into infrastucture (as if they did that) and more cost to remaining customers.

    Aww muffin…

  10. DrFredB says:

    Overall, this is good news, but we need to be aware that there are other issues that need to be considered in reaching a goal of mainly renewable sources of energy.

    For instance, hydropower can be detrimental to the environment and public health. See Aswan Dam and its effect on schistomiasis (sp?) and agriculture downstream. And there are many questions about China’s Three Gorges Dam, too. I’m not saying, “Don’t do it.” I’m saying be aware that there are indirect costs that go beyond the engineering and maintenance.

    Also what about energy storage when wind and sun are producing surpluses? That can distort the economics by getting small returns when energy is stored but paying a lot when it is drawn out because of supply/demand issues.

    The best thing to do is consider the big picture, which includes implementing a smart grid and including a carbon tax to count the long-term impact of global warming.

    I try to do that in my writing for young readers. Click my name if interested.

  11. wili says:

    “coupled with aggressive conservation”

    This is crucial.

    Look at what the article says:

    “This increase was largely due to favorable weather conditions resulting in increased wind and water flow,

    _as well as lower demand_.

    Portuguese citizens are

    _using less energy_

    and using sources that never run out for the vast majority of what they do use.”

    (My emphases.)

    We can get a whole lot closer to 100% renewables a whole not sooner if we work even harder on reducing demand than we do on increasing supply of alternatives.

    Of course, a large tax on (or, better, out-and-out rationing of) fossil “death” fuel sources is also a must, or we will just be making ff cheaper.

    Particularly in the US where so much is wasted, we can immediately and drastically reduce demand with a few simple but aggressive programs, such as:

    –hyper-insulating all buildings
    –encouraging/requiring ride sharing
    –dark skies
    –encourage biking/walking
    –discourage driving
    –discourage flying
    –discourage meat eating
    –encourage local eating, gardening…
    –discourage rampant consumerism
    –encourage sharing, reuse, doing without…
    –discourage/outlaw ‘vampire’ loads
    –discourage child bearing

    All of these can be done at little expense (or with net revenue, if increased taxes on unwanted activities are part of the mix) and they could start to have effects immediately, not having to wait for infrastructure to be built.

    And lots of time is not something we have.

  12. facts lean left says:

    Well, only idiots don’t learn from mistakes, and the idiots are conservative, and don’t edven want to try this

  13. facts lean left says:

    It’s a very big deal.

  14. Randy Seck says:

    Well, the truth is, hybrid and electric cars are expensive new, and after x amount of years the batteries need replacing and that can be another 5-15,000 dollars. However, if you go to California you will see plenty of hybrid cars. And, buying used is always an option where many electric cars are available at half price. Personally I might buy a used Electric once I pay back my student loans and save up a down payment in 2 years – and I’m in upstate NY.

  15. That’s Kenneth Boulding’s First Law!: “Anything that exists is possible.”

  16. Ed Leaver says:

    27.7%, actually. Which is a bit less than the (approximate) 30% US utilities think they can get from such sources without undue stress. Still, 37% hydro + 28% WS = 65%, so where does the other 5.3% come from? Waves/tidal were mentioned, but no numbers. Also, hydro is not quite as 24/7/365 consistent as one might hope. See U.S. hydropower output varies dramatically from year to year. Individual reservoirs can be even worse. Or better, depending on one’s perspective. Grand Coulee Dam, for instance, is rated at 6.8 GW peak output, but on average produces “only” 21 TWh per year, for a plant factor of about 35%. Which mightn’t seem impressive, ‘cept US Bureau of Reclamation rates Grand Coulee’s Production Mode as “Intermediate”. It also has pumped-hydro capability, and with such excess capacity operates partially as a peaking plant. Which will be of increasing benefit as more wind is deployed in the Coulees, and solar in the Sonora.

    Hoover Dam has a nameplate capacity of 2.1 GW and produces a ten-year average of 4.2 TWh/yr, for a plant factor of 23%. Minimum production was 2.65 TWh in the drought year 1956, while maximum 10.3 TWh was obtained from the wild runoff of 1984. It too is an intermediate mode peaking plant. Presumably, Portugal operates much of its hydro the same way.

  17. wrcheatham says:

    Before we go to Portugal, let’s pay attention to things happening in our own back yard. Canada’s hydroelectric dams have supplied the majority of that country’s electricity for decades. Canada is also the world’s third-largest producer of hydroelectric power. And although Canada does have vast natural resources from which to draw this power, the continental U.S. has even greater potential.

  18. Ed Leaver says:

    Aye. A good healthy Carbon Tax would encourage all of the above, save the last.

  19. zoom314 says:

    100% in Australia is what the Aussies are aiming at, I like that idea, Here in the US We could do that and with the technology that Nevada Solar One uses, the wiki says this:

    Solar thermal power plants designed for solar-only generation are well matched to summer noon peak loads in areas with significant cooling demands, such as the southwestern United States. Using thermal energy storage systems, solar thermal operating periods can be extended to meet base load needs.[15] Given Nevada’s land and sun resources the state has the theoretical ability to have more than 600 GW of electrical generation capacity using solar thermal concentrators like those used by Nevada Solar One.[16] It has been proposed that massive expansion of solar plants such as Nevada Solar One has the potential to provide sufficient electricity to power the entire United States

    Nevada Solar One

    Nevada Solar One uses proprietary technology to track the sun’s location and concentrate its rays during peak demand hours. The plant uses 760 parabolic trough concentrators with more than 182,000 mirrors that concentrate the sun’s rays onto more than 18,240 receiver tubes placed at the focal axis of the troughs and containing a heat transfer fluid (solar receivers). Fluid that heats up to 735°F (391°C) flows through these tubes and is used to produce steam that drives a Siemens SST-700[10] steam turbine, adapted to the specific requirements of the CSP technology,[11] which is connected to a generator to produce electricity.

  20. Turboblocke says:

    Don’t get hung up on load factors: in the UK conventional plant has an average load factor of 40-45%. Figure 5.10

    Also note that by increasing the number of generating sets in a hydro installation, higher peak power can be generated but as the amount of water is not increased then load factor will fall.

  21. Ed Leaver says:

    Thanks. Hydro is not dispatchable conventional e.g. coal, gas, or nukes; I tried to stress the peaking nature of hydro operation. Gas can be (and is) used in peaking capacity as well. Nuclear can be as well (I think, citation needed etc.), at least the newer plant, but due to exorbitant capital cost it currently makes no economic sense to run them for any but baseload at 90+% capacity.

  22. Fernando Moura says:

    There is nothing healthy about carbon taxes and it will not bring people around in the same way that positive results through effective dev of solutions. In Portugal, a carbon tax cannot be the solution at this times, it would push the country to the top on the european tax ranking. Fuel is already taxed almost 90% and that is what the USA needs to do, taxing carbon is just silly for the same reason that no one can tax water condensation that is the real “problem” in that index. You should cut down on the brainwash. Maybe the occupations and imperialism would stop and the money would be there for a real eco conversion.

  23. Fernando Moura says:

    … and yet they mine coal and extract heavy oil like there is no tomorrow. Yeah, let’s ear it for Canada. Pfft!

  24. Fabricio says:

    Brazil has been doing it for decades, I think it deserves to be mentioned. Check it out:

    “Renewable energy in Brazil accounted for more than 85.4% of the domestically produced electricity”

    “Hydroelectric power plants produce over 90% of the electrical energy consumed in Brazil”

  25. Ed Leaver says:

    Heh. Well if the “100% the Aussies are aiming for” is (y)our target as well, then one will need look a bit beyond Solar One, although they will play a role. The most optimistic CST storage time is less than 15 hrs, 9 is more common. Doesn’t leave much room for extended regional bad weather, though as you point out, AC/cooling demand is lower at such times. Still, the latest academic study I’ve seen, Least cost 100% renewable electricity scenarios in the Australian National Electricity Market, assigns CVT but 12% – 13% of the total load (see Table 5). Its a good article, despite some (occasionally questionable) simplifying assumptions. Its simply fascinating that someone is finally showing how to do these analysis right. I expect many followons, confirmations/refutations, improvements, and applications elsewhere.

  26. MorinMoss says:

    I think it would be a mistake for Portugal to rely too heavily on hydroelectricity and they should do more to develop their excellent solar potential, one of the best in the EU and almost twice as good as that of Germany.

    Right now they have less than 250MW solar but almost 4GW wind. Ramping up solar power, even if curtailing expansion of other power generation would reduce the costs of daytime power.

  27. Andrew Bugbee says:

    Ever hear of dredging?

  28. Dee Neely says:

    While the Hoover Dam does contribute to the situation on the Colorado river it is not THE cause of the disappearance of the water at the end. It’s a combination of the dam, withdrawal of water for irrigation and the effects of climate changes.
    As with so many things going it’s a multiphasic problem.

  29. LJL says:

    Environmentally responsible energy cost money. For example American pays a bit more than $.08 per kilowatt hour, whereas Portugal pays $.2525, Germany $.30+ and Denmark $.40+. Clean energy is expensive right now but well worth the price no matter how cheap polluting is.

  30. Ed Leaver says:

    My apologies. I was suggesting Carbon Tax for the US. European fuel taxes already go much of that distance there. CT here would help move US more in your direction.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Murdoch’s First Law, ‘Anything that exists, and which I or my caste do not own or make money from, will be denied’.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    How hard would it be to mandate rooftop solar PV and reflective roofs, the latter for some albedo enhancement?

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Portuguese are using less energy because they are mired in a depression, which sort of tells you how to get out of our pickle.

  34. Malcolm Scott says:

    ‘Australia could be looking at 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.’

    Let us not overstate or over reach on this observation. You might draw the wrong conclusion.

    Yes there are studies to suggest how this can be done with relatively little pain. However, there is absolutely no political will to do so at either Federal or State levels from any of the major parties making up government, now or for the foreseeable future.

    The current government has made such a mess of things such that carbon pricing is a dirty word simply by association.

    The alternative government almost assured to win the next election is committed to a minimalist approach that is unlikely to be effective even for a modest outcome. The policy approach is a political fix between sceptics, deniers, small government libertarians, and liberals. Such agreement means there will be little positive outcomes for the climate. There are just too many entrenched powerful interest groups.

    However, in a sun and wind resource rich country that Australia is, perhaps in 25 years time miracles might happen, one step at a time. 100% safe renewables by 2030 is in my dreams as well.

  35. Malcolm Scott says:

    I meant 15 years time, not 25

  36. David B. Benson says:

    There are many restrictions on the operation of hydro power but if one has enough it can be used for baseload, intermediate load, load balancing (against wind) and even peaking load:
    BPA Balancing Authority Load and Total Wind, Hydro, and Thermal Generation, Near-Real-Time

    I’m not saying this is without environmental problems; the salmon pay the price.

  37. David B. Benson says:

    Hydro often operates at a low capacity factor since enough generators are in place for the majority of high water flow events. For example,n the case of BPA the new licensing restrictions require very little spill during spring runoff while at the same time maintaining a very high flow rate; lots of electricity must be generated.

  38. David B. Benson says:

    About 75% of Washington state’s electricity is from other than fossil fuel generators:

  39. Omega Centauri says:

    I think reflective roofs are mandated, for commercial flat roofs. Lancaster, has mandated PV roofs for new construction. But that’s a small town….

  40. Ed Leaver says:

    Reflective shingles, not so hard. They are quite popular in Austin, TX. Mandated rooftop PV might not be a good idea without a breakthrough in storage battery cost. Without load balancing large scale rooftop PV is both expensive, and can actually work against long-term goal of deep emission cuts. But for near-term low penetration while there are still plenty of gas turbines to balance, voluntary rooftop PV deployment is fine. Successful renewable deployment will require careful matching of all available technologies.

  41. Omega Centauri says:

    I think Canada is two countries. The East is getting off fossils and installing renewables -and exporting hydro power as well. While the West (mainly Alberta, is pushing full speed ahead on tar sands.

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In fact there is active will, oodles of it, amongst the further Right ‘Liberal’ and ‘National’ parties to do the exact opposite and throttle renewables wherever possible.

  43. Spike says:

    I agree.Whenever I visit Spain, Greece or Portugal I am surprised how little solar PV they have given the resource available. Italy is doing better.

  44. Spike says:

    Jeremy Grantham well worth a read in the Guardian:

    He does think there’s some cause for hope. For example, “the business mathematics of alternative energy are changing much faster [than many people] realise.” Looming carbon taxes (“hopefully, in the not-too-distant future”), coupled with the increasing affordability of alternative energy, will mean that coal and oil from tar sands run the “very substantial risk of being stranded assets”. There there’s the “amazing” fall in fertility rates across the world (“the absolute minimum hope of survival is a gracefully declining population”).

    But “China is my secret weapon,” he says enthusiastically. His eyes widen with excitement, and he talks quicker and quicker. “The Chinese cavalry riding to the rescue. I have very high hopes for China because they have embedded high scientific capabilities in their leadership class. They know this is serious. And they are acting much faster now than we are. They have it within their capabilities to come back in 30 years with the guarantee of complete energy independence – all alternative and sustainable for ever. They have an embarrassment of capital. We have an embarrassment of debt. So they can set a stunning pace, which they are doing. And they could crank it up. To hell with their five-year plans, they should move up to 25-year plans. They would have such low-cost energy at the end of it they’d be the terror of the capitalist system. Low energy and low labour, that’s the ball game.”

  45. Tony says:

    The title is a little misleading and “power” should be changed to “electricity”.

    However, the infrastructure required to harness renewable energy in not, itself, renewable. It is also built on the back of a fossil fuel infrastructure and almost certainly relies on it. So let’s not get carried away by a report that one country, struggling economically, or pretend that it means that there is any sort of “solution” to AGW driven climate change.

  46. prokaryotes says:

    Germany has been close to this figure as well, last month reached a new record peak in base generation from renewables.

  47. Andrés Cañas says:

    Here in COSTA RICA, we’ve been on 80% renewable power for years..
    Welcome to our neighbourhood Portugal and Germany, proud to have you close,

  48. Cheryl says:

    During the 12 years I lived in Japan, at least half of the houses’ roofs (in every neighborhood I stayed in – Saitama, Tokyo & Yokohama) were covered with solar panels on the sunny south sides. Large windows & doors were also usually designed ONLY for the south side of the buildings – houses, apartments, office buildings, factories. This type of change must begin with ‘professionals’ who design from the top down for sustainability. Also, anyone who wants to build their own house has the option of going out on the winter solstice to mark their plot of land, placing stakes to catch the full sun on that day in order to benefit from passive solar. If tile flooring is used with large windows on the south side, the tile-captured warmth can radiate out at night to keep the room warmer. Isn’t this better than paying for electricity to heat a standard US house where passive solar is totally irrelevant?

  49. fj says:

    Not knowing the originator, this perfectly incontrovertible argument comes from Amory Lovins in my experience.

  50. Brooks Bridges says:

    Thanks very much Spike. Grantham has impressed me as a realist and a straight shooter so glad to get this info.

  51. J4Zonian says:

    Distributed generation is exactly what we need. Peak load power that lets us shut down old gas and coal burners is exactly what we need. Rooftop solar provides it, especially combined with conservation, changes in lives and schedules, and wind.

    But we don’t have to go only with that. A choice between rooftop food gardens and a combination of solar and water collection would go far in helping multiple problems (and reflective roofs where none of those wil work). Millions of birds are killed by transmission lines, although you’d never know it from Koch-funded and -inspired attacks on wind power. Household power and power-saving food production onsite would also help with that.

  52. Kent Doering says:

    Oh goodness, new tecnologies develop all the time
    The German “Energiewende” is producing some surprises. Munich is aiming to be the 1stlarge city region over a million people to be 100% renewableby 2025.
    One part of that includes continuing to build out its extensive district heating system and converting muc of it to be powered by deep geothermal under the city in addition to waste incineration plans.

    Now for the extra kicker. The system already saves over 5 million barrels of heating oil per annum, and that figure will be up to about 7 million by 2025. More energy will be squeezed out of the system- by installing Alpha Stirling motors driving generators-
    i.e. 300 KW- at 5000 big building – grid interfaces. That means a fll 1.500 GW in additional baseline power off the grid.
    And much of that will go into Munich´s building out “syn gas artificial methane” system- which will have hydrogen fuel cell stacks” generating hydrogen, mixed with recaptured co² from the 400 MW trash incineration plant. These stacks will also buffer wind and solar as well. i.e. an output of 300 liters of gas per input KWh.

    That will mean 240.000 cubic meters of syn gas an hour to power two combined cyce Gas and Steam power plants as “clean” baseline power-and feeding back into the grid.

    Places like Guessing Astia and Wildpoldsried, Germany gnerate 3.5 time much power as they consume with bio-waste, small bio-waste fired district heating, rooftop, solar and wind. Now,Munich is comited to being off fossil for heat and power by 2025. (And that aslo includes the power for 16 suburban train lines, 6 /and now a 7th brake energ recycling subway systm,and 12 low entry, streetcar lines carrying over 2 million passeners a day- taking a lot of cars off the road.

    Delhted that Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark,Ireland, the Neterland, even France are moving as fast as possible to exit fossil.

  53. Yido says:

    That’s total bullshit. Specially considering Portugal’s location. The last seasons have been very generous and thankfully the water reserves created are enough to supply the country soils for the next 3 years already. What bothers me the most is that despite all this, energy prices keep rising and rising in Portugal. You already pay more in added taxes than you pay for the actual monthly consume of energy .The same goes for the price of water. It’s insane.