Portugal has been a nightmare lately. In 2011, it joined Greece on the sovereign bailout list. Since then, it has been battered by strikes, failing banks, corruption scandals, double-digit unemployment and hung parliaments.
But as Lisbon burned, the rest of the world barely noticed that the tiny country was making great strides in renewable energy — so great that it is now being lauded as an example of what is possible as industrialized economies try to embrace a low-carbon future.
The high point came in May when, for four consecutive days, fossil-fuel-free sources produced 100% of the country's electricity. Most of it came from hydro power and wind turbines, with small dollops from biofuels and solar panels.
That extraordinary run is unlikely to be repeated soon. It was the result of a period of relatively low energy demand, strong winds and ample rainfall. But there is no doubt that a pleasing trend is in play (unless, of course, we are content to go on cooking the planet with greenhouse gas emissions). In 2013, renewables supplied about 26% of Portugal's electricity, a figure that rose to 63% a year later, before falling to 50% in 2015 because of a drought. Assuming that renewable energy costs keep falling and that financially strapped Portugal does not crunch its clean-energy subsidies (as Spain has done), an electricity market dominated by clean power seems likely in the next decade or so.
The message: If Portugal can do it, so can Canada and other Western countries with stated ambitions to wave goodbye to the carbon era. And maybe, just maybe, African countries can take inspiration from Portugal and go directly to renewable energy instead of building fleets of highly polluting coal-burning plants — the grubby development route taken by China and India — as they move up the industrial value chain.
While Portugal is a standout example, other countries are making abundant, if not quite spectacular, progress too on the renewables front. On one day in early May, the amount of electricity generated by coal in Britain fell to zero for the first time since the famously sooty country launched coal-fired generation in the 1880s. That, too, was something of a fluke — some coal plants had been closed for maintenance — but huge capacity in renewable energy allowed the lights to stay on.
Renewables already supply half of the electricity in Sweden and are coming on strong in Morocco, of all places, where vast thermal-solar plants are under construction. They already supply almost 10% of Morocco's electricity, and the goal is to see their share rise to more than 50% by 2030. Meanwhile, the state of South Australia recently closed its last coal burner. It now gets more than half of its electricity from wind and solar.
But both Portugal and other like-minded Western countries are missing one crucial element — the industrial side. They are now employing scads of technology — wind and water turbines, solar panels, lenses used to concentrate sunshine in solar-thermal systems — that is being built in China and other low-cost Asian countries. China views renewable energy not just as a way to clean up skies clouded with smoke but as a grand job-creation project that, in tandem with a program of building nuclear-power plants, will see the country manufacture national energy security. That beats the option of relying on imported oil and gas.
The West has yet to realize that a renewable win-win requires making the machines as well as the electricity itself. "Portugal is only a small part of the green shift," says John Mathews, a management professor at Australia's Macquarie University who has chronicled China's renewables ascent. "China is building new green industries at a furious rate, as export platforms for the future."
Ever-cheaper renewable energy technology from China can make it hard for Western rivals to compete, especially if a sympathetic industrial strategy is absent. The near eradication of the European and North American solar-panel industry was the result of China flooding the global market with homegrown knockoffs. One victim was Arise Technologies, once the leading light of the Canadian solar industry.
European companies, among them Vestas and Siemens, are still big manufacturers of wind turbines. China's capture of the solar-panel market will make Vestas and Siemens try all the harder to stay in the top rank. One Western energy company that appears to understand that the future lies in making both the juice and the juicemaker is, ironically, France's oil champion — Total. In 2011, it bought 60% of SunPower, one of the largest solar companies in the United States. In May, it picked up French energy-storage company and battery maker Saft Groupe for almost €1 billion.
Little Portugal has inspired the clean-energy market. It would be all the more inspiring if the country could make the technology too.