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“What we want to do in 2030, will be decided and planned in the next three or four years”

António Sá da Costa
António Sá da Costa

António Sá da Costa, President of APREN, the Portuguese Renewable Energy Association, welcomed ECO123 to the association’s headquarters in Lisbon. Focusing on the state of affairs in Portugal for producing energy from renewable sources and expectations for the future, the conversation was fluid and fascinating, and ranged over a large number of topics. This demonstrated the notable capacity for communication and the passion of the man who regards himself as a “marathon runner” for the benefit of renewable energies in Portugal.

What is the current proportion of renewable energy sources in energy production in Portugal?
Nowadays, over 50% of our energy is from renewable sources, and the trend is upwards. The objective envisaged for 2020 is that this percentage should get close to 60% – we still need to make a certain effort to achieve this. And for 2030, the previous government presented an objective in Brussels of having 40% of all energy consumption coming from renewable sources. Energy use is classified in three groups: electricity, transport and heating and cooling, which is consumption that can be seen, for example, in factories and in our homes. In the latter two sectors, in order to reach the 40% target, the electricity sector will have to have between 75% and 85% from renewables in 2030. When we have little penetration of renewable energy in the market, its share in the composition of the cost is very low. When we start to have an increasing share, the price starts to be an important factor. Because we must not forget that electricity is an undifferentiated product.

There is no electricity of good and bad quality.
It is all of good quality. What differentiates it is the price. I might be prepared to pay five or ten percent more, but no one is prepared to pay bills that are two or three times higher just because the electricity is from renewable sources. The consumption of electricity, of energy, does not grow exponentially. People have levels of consumption that are more or less standardised. And nowadays, we are witnessing increased efficiency in consumption. We are consuming less electricity for example, thanks to more efficient domestic appliances, LED light bulbs, and to paying more attention.

Are people more aware of the need to monitor their consumption?
Some are, others aren’t. In the sense of reducing consumption. But, on the other hand, there are also things that increase consumption. I’ll give you two examples. We are introducing uses into our lives that didn’t exist in the past, and these uses are purely of electricity. And I am talking specifically of information technologies – when we have data centers and clouds, they use electrical energy, not coal, or oil or natural gas. This type of consumption didn’t exist, and then it started. When someone installs air conditioning in their house, a microwave, it uses electricity. But there are also types of consumption that replace others. A gas stove in a house is replaced by an induction cooker, which is more efficient in terms of energy, and the consumption is being electrified. When you stop using a petroleum-powered car and start driving an electric car, you are giving up using a fossil fuel. These two things, new uses of energy and the shift of other sectors to the electricity sector, cause consumption to increase. As a result, on the one hand consumption falls, and on the other it rises. This means that everything will remain more or less as it is – perhaps it will fall slightly. And I am not talking about tomorrow, I am talking about five or ten years’ time. Now, in addition to this, we will have the producer-consumers. People who will install solar panels on the roofs of their houses for self-consumption, and their demand on the grid will be lower. This will need us to produce less.

Is good use being made of the whole country, and the potential of each region, for the production of energy from renewable sources?
IMG_5276No. Let us start with a question which is not being properly exploited, the first steps are being taken – solar power. The most efficient way of using the sun’s energy directly is to heat sanitary water – even more efficient than producing electricity. In the building where I live, I installed photovoltaic solar panels on the roof. I don’t spend a cent on heating water for six months of the year. And the rest of the time, I spend very little because I installed a pellet boiler as a backup which also serves for ambient heating.

It’s a significant saving.
Huge. Of course this meant an initial investment. I have the roof of the house, and I won’t change the world by installing a photovoltaic panel there or a panel for heating water. The sun beats down there every day, when it’s supposed to. It doesn’t beat down at night or when it’s cloudy, but it’s there. We are not making the most of photovoltaic solar power for generating electricity. We prefer to use our money to buy petrol, natural gas or coal to do something that we could have for free. There are still some places, albeit few, where the use of wind power for electricity could be increased, but it is already quite well exploited. What is still lacking, because there is significant potential, is making better use of the water in our rivers not only for the production of electricity but also in reservoirs. And we have already made good use of biomass. What we haven’t exploited is geothermal energy. The exceptions to this are two geothermal power stations in the Azores, but even there we could have several more power stations. In fact the area that is most underexploited is solar power, but this is also because it is only recently that prices have started to fall.

Will ordinary citizens have the capacity to invest in solutions for producing their own energy from renewable sources?
People find it difficult to understand that it is at difficult times that we have to be ingenious about investing. However, we don’t have a tradition of saving, of planning and predicting, of doing our sums. I’ll take another personal example: I travel in an electric vehicle with a range of over 400 kilometres. If I charge the electric vehicle at home during the off-peak period, I can do 100 kilometres with less than €1.50 worth of electricity. I managed to recover the VAT. I don’t pay road tax, autonomous tax, parking in Lisbon, and insurance is cheaper. Can it be claimed that an electric car is expensive? The investment I made in the solar panels was paid for in five and a half years. They will last me for 25 years, I’ll have twenty years free with an investment of just over two thousand euros. If a person in their family cannot put together two thousand euros from their own capital and financing for an investment that they can recover in five years, what can I say? Of course there are sacrifices, this is a matter of defining priorities.

Is APREN in harmony with current national energy policy?
It is always possible to go further. Development must take place in a balanced way. And one sector cannot go very far ahead of the others. We already have quite a significant proportion of renewable electricity. We are not making use of renewables in other sectors, in particular for heating and cooling. And, as I said, this has a lot to do with the heating of sanitary water and the sun. There is much to do in this sector. We do not use biomass for interior heating. Bearing in mind that electricity represents 25% of national energy consumption, even if I have 100% renewable electricity, I will only have 25% of the total amount of energy. And the rest will have to come from other sectors – heating and cooling, and transport. By transferring transport from petrol and diesel to electricity, there is an improvement in this direction. I have to point out that the cheapest kilowatt/hour or litre of petrol is the one that isn’t used. Note that not using means doesn’t mean withdrawing it from use. Being energetically efficient is doing things with lower energy consumption, it does not mean not doing them.

Is there a lack of awareness-raising among people about using renewable energy sources?
There is a big lack of awareness-raising. People say that renewable electricity is expensive. They fail to understand that electricity from renewable sources, especially solar, creates amazing stability and a lowering of prices. Look, electricity this year on the market is about 20% more expensive than last year, for the simple reason that there is less water and less wind. Why? Because the electricity that came from water and wind was replaced by natural gas and coal. And imports. And wind energy did not go down much, just about 3%, while hydroelectricity went down 32% in comparison with last year.

Is this an extraordinary situation?
António Sá da Costa

No. If we analyse the past 15 years, the ratio between electricity produced in a dry year and in a wet year is one to three. How can I manage to minimise these oscillations? If I have capacity for storage. When can I store water? In dams. And wherever we can construct dams, the environmentalists appear and say that they’re bad.

Making it difficult to create the safety reserve needed to avoid oscillations.
Exactly. Electricity is a commodity, for which, within a hundreth of a second, supply has to equal demand. If not, problems of overvoltage and voltage drop can occur. Electricity has two types of factory. There are those that produce immediately, such as wind, solar, hydroelectricity, with a trickle of water. In these cases, either you use it or the opportunity to use the natural raw material has passed. And then there are those that can be stored. And here there are water resources, like dams, or thermal sources. In these, we can open and close the tap in accordance with the need to generate electricity. So, people need to be informed. But what happens is that they are not normally ready to listen. It’s a lot of work.

But you are optimistic.
If I was pessimistic I would have already have left. People working in the energy sector, especially renewable electricity, are marathon runners not sprinters. The investment, the projects take many years to be implemented. At our conference on the future of energy, we have different panels looking at energy for 2030. Decisions about energy take ten to fifteen years to implement. So, what we want to do in 2030, will be decided and planned in the next three or four years. What is happening today was decided ten or fifteen years ago. The energy sector is not compatible with the four-year cycles of our politicians. The position of APREN has always been to be part of the solution and never part of the problem. And I recall the three main benefits of using renewable sources. We gain energy independence. We create employment. And we contribute positively to GDP. It’s a win-win-win.

António Sá da Costa (67) has a degree in Civil Engineering from the Instituto Superior Técnico (IST). He also has a Master’s and a doctorate in Water Resources from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a lecturer at the IST in the Department of Hydraulics and Water Resources and a consultant engineer for over 30 years. He founded the Grupo Enersis in 1988, of which he was managing director until 2008.

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