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Strong government but progress still slow

Grid limitations and environmental intransigence are threatening Portugal's 3000 MW objective as the government hacks away at a mountain of applications for grid connection totalling 7000 MW of wind plant

Portugal's major wind developers remain stoically calm despite only getting 130 MW on-line so far and despite the government's failure to fulfil its New Year's promise to answer all new grid connection applications by March 13. Three months after the deadline only around a quarter of requests had got on to the connection shortlist, according to Antonio Sa dà Costa of the national renewables association, Asociaçao Portugesa de Productores Independentes de Energia Eléctrica (APREN). But developers are generally forgiving of the delays considering that the 7000 MW avalanche of applications provoked by January's generous wind tariff law (Windpower Monthly, March 2002) far exceeded their wildest expectations.

The state energy department, or Direcçao Geral de Energia (DGE), has promised that all connection requests will be answered before August, after which successful applicants will have 70 days to complete project details and to forward their deposits of EUR 2500 for each megawatt planned.

APREN is confident that this demand for deposits -- a corner stone of Portugal's new grid connection law -- will weed out most of the non-viable projects at one fell swoop. An even more decisive condition of the new law is that projects produce land lease agreements as a prerequisite to entering the grid connection short list. APREN estimates that around half of the projects responding to January's call for connection applications overlap areas where land lease agreements have already been clinched by the other half. A large number of applications are likely to be trashed as a result.

While land agreements provide a clearer outline of the main potential players, Sa dà Costa says all new development still faces two major mine fields: grid limitations and what he describes as "fundamentalist" opposition from the environment department. Meeting Portugal's 2500-3000 MW target for 2010 will require a lot of new infrastructure. Currently the national grid is estimated to have capacity for around 1000 MW of new wind power -- following investment in substations and grid strengthening. But despite DGE promises to co-ordinate grid expansion talks between developers and operator, Rede Eléctrica Nacional (REN), nothing has happened so far.

What has happened is not entirely reassuring. In one of the few zones where developers have received answers, only 170 MW has been admitted out of connection requests totalling 1200 MW. "In one go, and in one area, we say goodbye to projects for more than 1000 MW," says Sa dà Costa. "It's hard to say how many other zones will also report such dramatic figures." Developers are already negotiating trade-off contingencies among themselves. "If I have one 40 MW development in one area and one 40 MW development in another I would prefer to carry out one full project than two 20 MW ones," says Sa dà Costa.

On a positive note, January's law saw the state energy department taking over grid connection processing from national utility Electricidade de Portugal and answers to applications are "far more intelligent and transparent," according to Álvaro Rodrigues of Oporto university's industrial technology department. Instead of the standard "yes" or "no" received prior to the new connection law, Rodrigues says that refusals are explained in detail and that positive responses are accompanied by a schedule of how much can go up in each zone and when.

Another ray of hope comes from government plans to review EU funds to Portuguese energy channelled through the Programa Operacional de Energia. Rodrigues says that DGE is talking about pooling the program's ยค300,000 subsidy paid to individual wind projects and pumping the money into grid improvements instead. "But it's too early to know what will happen" he says.

A growing trend is for small hydro developers to transfer operation rights from rivers to wind. Many hydro permits have long since been blocked by the environment department. Most Portuguese wind developers are also involved in small hydro and Rodrigues estimates viable water-wind transfers to total around 100 MW.

Environment barriers

"But even if we managed to get connections for 4000 MW we have no way of knowing how much would get through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) stage," says Sa dà Costa. He explains that the environment department has already "failed" several projects and has delayed a decision on many others, claiming that EIA reports were incomplete or faulty. "This is simply subterfuge. Technicians will find 1001 different things wrong with a project if they want to." Sa dà Costa believes, however, that this kind of obstruction comes from rank and file technicians within the department and not from above. In fact, he says the department's political leadership has said it is aware of the problem and promises to tackle it. "Hope is the last thing we should lose," says Sa dà Costa.

Rodrigues agrees. He thinks the go-ahead will soon be given to two or three of the big projects developed prior to January's shake up and that this will give the sector the moral boost it needs. And while he sees the 2500-3000 MW objective as extremely ambitious, he adds: "At least we have a widely recognised goal to move towards and if we only manage to get 2000 MW up that's still a leap."

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