Mega solar farm planned for key water catchment area: today is final day for opinions
Massive solar installation would have transformed the wild land locals are trying to defend

Mega solar farm planned for key water catchment area: today is final day for opinions

Centro Fotovoltaíca de Estói participation process has already 693 responses

This afternoon’s total for the public’s ‘participation’ over a plan to site almost 176,000 solar panels on top of a key water catchment area was nudging 700.

Today is the absolute last day for people to lodge their opinions – and campaigning group Probaal are hoping against hope that this process will show authorities of the total folly of the scheme.

As previous reports have explained, the only factions who appear to want this massive solar farm are Spanish energy giant Iberdrola – the company that has been busily buying up/ renting plots of land around the site – and possibly interests within government.

The local municipality and its population are aware of the importance of this wild stretch of countryside (explained in the video below) and predict ‘environmental catastrophe’ if the project is given the go-ahead.

Probaal (standing for Pro-Barrocal Algarvio, referring to the geographic location) recently held public meetings in the village of Santa Catarina de Fonte do Bispo to raise awareness of what are generally perceived as the potential risks of this mega solar undertaking.

Back to back sessions were delivered in Portuguese and English, and attended by roughly 130 people.

Much of the information shared was taken from the Non-Technical Summary, a document which has been presented as part of the public consultation process and is available to view online.

It’s a terrible document,’’ says PROBAAL. “The Non-Technical Summary (NTR) is written in a very confusing way, it’s full of inaccuracies, omissions and often uses jargonistic language like ‘sensitive receptor’. The term sensitive receptor is a legal one that refers to buildings, like schools or hospitals and in this case, it refers to homes. This is part of the reason we wanted a public meeting, to properly explain the project and answer questions on it, because the documentation can be hard to understand. We also felt that the live presentations were vital, because not everyone has access to the internet and we made printed copies available for people to read as well.’’

PROBAAL set about disclosing the information provided by the company, by referring to the documents provided online.

Regarding plants the summary explains that: “250 species have been identified in the study area, of which 46 are RELAPE species”. RELAPE species, refers to those that are either Rare, Endemic, Localised, Threatened or Endangered and confirms the presence of 46 species of these.

“The non-technical summary identifies only three habitats (5330 (matos pré-desérticos termo-mediterrânicos), 92D0 (galerias e matos ribeirinhos do sul), 9340) that are protected by European Law, but additional habitats have been confirmed by biologists who have visited the site and even a regular person who walks on that land in springtime sees the orchids growing all around. It is worrying that several habitats are not listed and suggests that the Environmental Impact Study of the Estoi Photovoltaic Plant is flawed, incomplete and avoiding the truth of the situation”, says a Probaal recent press release.

“Regarding trees the NTR states that: “No trees of public interest exist within the study area”. Yet a tree survey of three species exists amongst the other documents, which concludes that: “In the solar central area; 1,981 carob trees were identified, and 280 holm oaks. In the 50m buffer around the line supports; 70 holm oaks and 6 cork oaks were identified.’’

Virtually the whole area suggested for implementation of the solar power plant is classified as National Ecolgocial Reserve, (REN) for the recharge of aquifers. It is the zone of maximum infiltration for the Peral-Moncarapacho aquifer (M13), the 44 square kilometre cave system that supplies water to all the boreholes in the area, including the municipal borehole JCS1. Meaning that people on (mains) town water, as well as those with personal boreholes, rely on this groundwater source.

“Under Portuguese law, this category of land has legal protection against clearance of vegetation and development, as stated by the Decree-Law (n.º 93/901 of 19 March,) “in the areas integrated in REN, all actions of public or private initiative which are translated into land division operations, urbanization works, construction of buildings, hydraulic works, communication routes, landfills, excavations and destruction of vegetation cover are prohibited”.

“The reason that the law forbids clearing the vegetation from this land, is because this action would adversely affect the process of water infiltration and although exceptions can be made for alternative energy, – “f) Production and distribution of electricity from renewable sources” – PROBAAL believes that in this case, the REN laws should be upheld to keep the infiltration system intact. The right to use REN land for a solar energy project is not guaranteed in law, as stated in the NTR, it; ‘’requires prior communication to the CCDR-Algarve for the occupation of “strategic areas of infiltration and of aquifer protection and recharge”.

“In their summary, the company suggests the following benefits to local people being as job creation and boosting the local economy. But PROBAAL thinks the project could damage the local economy; through loss of tourism revenue for those whose business depends on the natural values of the area, as well as a reduction in house values for many people.

“During the construction phase which would last a total of 15 months; the summary confirms that the air quality would be reduced, due to the creation of fine clay dust and there would be 40 hours per week of noise pollution during the months of land clearance.

“A permanent impact of allowing the CFE to be built would include the denial of access to open land that has been shared for generations; by walkers, hunters, cyclists and more recently by tourists from all over the world who appreciate the area for its natural beauty.

“Visual impacts for homes overlooking the thousands of solar panels, including glare for residents living in homes on the higher and southern side of the valley.

“Regarding the negative effects of Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) the company report says;The existence of high and very high voltage power lines, whose operation, will result in an accumulation of the EMF generated. However, the EMF generated will result in a minor impact, due to the absence of receptors in the surroundings of the power lines.’’

“We do not think this statement provides any reassurance for people who are living near the locations suggested for the high-voltage poles and who worry that they could be negatively affected by EMF”, continues Probaal’s press statement.

“The factor that could adversely affect everyone in the vicinity is the reduction of available water in the aquifer for individual and municipal boreholes and the possibility of water pollution by heavy metals leaching from solar panels over time.

“During the question-and-answer session at the end of the meeting, a member of the public asked whether the 49 points of mitigation in the document, were sufficient to justify the project? PROBAAL thinks that the short answer is ‘No’ and feels that the proposed project fails on every level to be suitable for the location suggested, due to the negative impacts it would have on plants, animals, water, and people. 

“The only argument that the company has for being at the location is to suggest that they can mitigate all the negative impacts, but PROBAAL thinks they can’t.

“It would not be possible to compensate for the destruction of hectares of biodiverse and natural land by planting young trees around the edges.

“Furthermore, the company can’t compensate for not having any contact with this community during the almost three years of planning of their project so far, by implementing their ‘Local Community Involvement Plan’ (NTR Point 26) at some undisclosed time in the future.

“One of the most heartbreaking suggestions of mitigation is Point 34, which reads; ‘in the sections that will be affected by the construction of the project, deforestation and cleaning must be…. followed by a documentary record with topographical and photographic surveys and the preparation of a descriptive memory (for future memory)”.

“It is clear from this statement, that Iberdrola Renewables Portugal completely understands the irreversible and permanent nature of the devastation to the landscape their project would cause. It confirms that if the company were to bulldoze up to 154 hectares of the Barrocal, there would be no putting it back and all that we could hope to retain of it, would be a memory.

“This is a chilling prospect, but as PROBAAL stated at the end of their address: “The main thing is, that this solar power plant has not been built yet and this beautiful land remains intact. This is a mistake, that has not been made yet. There is hope”.

Thus on this very last day of the public participation process, the association hopes that citizens will make the best use of their right to have their say on the matter and participate online to register their discordance.  This issue already looks set to become one of the most publicly contested solar projects that Portugal has seen.

“The results of this public consultation will be a real test as to the validity of the process for licencing alternative energy projects,’’ says PROBAAL. “The way that energy projects generally get passed for construction on ecological land, is through the overturning of the rights of the REN land in the eyes of the law, as a matter of public utility – that is to say, it is often asserted that the project must go ahead for the common good. 

“PROBAAL thinks it is clear in case of the Estoi Photovoltaic Project, that much of the public in the locality feel that this project can neither be considered to be in their personal interests nor in interests of the environment.’’

The Resident has in the past attempted contact with Iberdrola, to absolutely no effect. 

In June, Amnesty International Portugal released a study on how it believes these mega solar projects are being foisted onto local communities without transparency, and without any consideration for future consequences.

This is a battle in a small corner of the Algarve that will have consequences for every other area in the country threatened by ‘mega solar projects’.

[email protected]