Still, aggressive national policies to accelerate renewable energy use are succeeding in Portugal and some other countries, according to a recent report by IHS Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., a leading energy consulting firm. By 2025, the report projected, Ireland, Denmark and Britain will also get 40 percent or more of their electricity from renewable sources; if power from large-scale hydroelectric dams, an older type of renewable energy, is included, countries like Canada and Brazil join the list.
The United States, which last year generated less than 5 percent of its power from newer forms of renewable energy, will lag behind at 16 percent (or just over 20 percent, including hydroelectric power), according to IHS.
To force Portugal’s energy transition, Mr. Sócrates’s government restructured and privatized former state energy utilities to create a grid better suited to renewable power sources. To lure private companies into Portugal’s new market, the government gave them contracts locking in a stable price for 15 years — a subsidy that varied by technology and was initially high but decreased with each new contract round.
Compared with the United States, European countries have powerful incentives to pursue renewable energy. Many, like Portugal, have little fossil fuel of their own, and the European Union’s emissions trading system discourages fossil fuel use by requiring industry to essentially pay for excessive carbon dioxide emissions.
Portugal was well poised to be a guinea pig because it has large untapped resources of wind and river power, the two most cost-effective renewable sources. Government officials say the energy transformation required no increase in taxes or public debt, precisely because the new sources of electricity, which require no fuel and produce no emissions, replaced electricity previously produced by buying and burning imported natural gas, coal and oil. By 2014 the renewable energy program will allow Portugal to fully close at least two conventional power plants and reduce the operation of others.
“So far the program has placed no stress on the national budget” and has not created government debt, said Shinji Fujino, head of the International Energy Agency’s country study division.