The world’s largest solar photovoltaic farm is strangely beautiful. Fields lined with solar panels tilting sunward seem almost like a massive environmental art project—one with an empowering message to the world. We can find ways to run the world predominantly on clean energy if we choose to. It’s already beginning. By 2020, Portugal plans to generate over a third of its energy from renewables, with that percentage increasing every year.
The farm, located high on the Alantejo Plain near the small town of Mouro, will be twice as large as any other project of its kind. The farm is comprised of 2520 giant solar panels, positioned at a 45 degrees angle to track the sun as it moves across the sky.
Portugal has already made its mark as a world leader in switching to clean energy. Why? Partly because unlike other developed countries, Portugal doesn't have an economy dominated by coal, gas and uranium extraction industries.
The world's biggest wind farm also lies in Northern Portugal, with more than 130 turbines. Portugal’s plans for wave power are sparking interest around the globe, as well. Currently, the world's first commercial wave farm is being assembled near Porto. These "sea snakes", developed by the Edinburgh-based company Pelamis, will shortly be towed out to sea and will start pumping electricity into the grid later this year.
Portugal is leading the European clean-tech revolution, and economics minister Manuel Pinho hopes that this is just a start. He recently told UK’s Guardian that Portugal looks forward to a potentially giant global investment into clean energy tech.
According to Pinho, “We have to reduce our dependence on oil and gas. What seemed extravagant in 2004 when we decided to go for renewables now seems to have been a very good decision.”
Pinho says Portugal is not interested in nuclear power.
"When you have a program like this there is no need for nuclear power. Wind and water are our nuclear power. The relative price of renewables is now much lower, so the incentives are there to invest. My advice to countries like the UK is to move as fast as they can to renewables. With climate change and the increase in oil prices, renewables will become more and more important.”
He adds, "Countries that do not invest in renewables will pay a high price in future. The cost of inaction is very high indeed. The perception that renewable energy is very expensive is changing every day as the oil price goes up."
Not only that, but experts say that renewable energy has many intangible benefits to human health and the environment. Renewable energy means cleaner skies, waterways and soil, which over time could make all the difference in the world when it comes to the future of humankind.
As far as economics are concerned, advancements in the solar industry have led experts to believe that it will reach grid parity with coal in less than 5 years. If this happens, we'll be seeing a huge shift towards renewable energy. Recently Ray Kurzweil, who has been remarkably accurate with his tech predictions in the past, said he believes that in 20 years 100% of the world’s energy will be from clean and renewable sources.
While that seems almost absurdly optimistic at the present, Kurzweil explained at the recent World Science Festival in New York, that technology is often deceptively exponential. What seems unlikely today will seem completely obvious only a few years from now. Kurzweil backed up his claims at the conference with charts and graphs that showed some of the exponential advancements of the past.
One graph showed how computing power started with the first electromechanical machines over a century ago. Initially they doubled every three years. At mid-century, they began to double every two years, which was the rate that inspired Moore’s Law. It now takes only a year.
Kurzweil believes that renewable energy will follow the same exponential upward trend. While it may seem deceptively slow in the beginning, once the world is behind clean energy in earnest, things will start to happen very, very quickly.
Lets hope he’s right.
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