Portugal has become the fourth country in Europe to stop using coal to produce electricity.
The licence for the last existing thermoelectric plant at Pego, in Abrantes, actually remains in place until the end of the month – but the final stock of coal ran out last Friday, making Saturday the first day that electricity was produced in this country without recourse to coal.
It’s “very good news”, says environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes, though there are still a number of burning questions.
First, what will become of the 150 employees at the plant? Second, what might happen at the site?
According to Expresso, Mr Matos Fernandes will be meeting workers on Tuesday “to put their minds at rest”.
Without revealing details, he told the paper he will be “presenting a clear mechanism of protection for this work” including “training measures, and salary protection, if there is an immediate problem”.
This has powered environmentalists’ concerns over the second burning question. What is the government planning for the plant?
Sines, the first of Portugal’s coal-fired electricity generation sites to be closed, is set to become the centre of a green-hydrogen cluster. The system that used to take seawater to cool the plant is likely to be used to service a renewable data centre campus planned for next door. But in Pego, there is nothing like this being mooted, which has prompted fears that the plant could revert to burning biomass – something environmentalists say would be counter-productive.
Francisco Ferreira of ZERO says the burning of biomass is “an inefficient option” which fails to answer “the more ambitious objectives for the mitigation of climate change”.
It is not enough to have done away with the major sources of environmental pollution (the coal plants between them belched many millions of tons of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere over the years), Portugal needs what environmentalists call “a just plan for energetic transition” so that it can reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, or even earlier. And environmentalists are particularly worried that there has been a dearth of both ‘dialogue and social consultation’.
For now, the second question will remain unanswered. Expresso explains there are two possibilities for the conversion of Pego – one of them being the biomass burning option. The other is for solar energy and green hydrogen. Choices will only come clear at the end of January when the results of the government’s solar/ green hydrogen auction are announced.
Mr Matos Fernandes, meantime – a minister already tipped to be unprepared to continue in his role if the PS government wins legislative elections in January – has said that the biomass option is the one that will create more jobs.
Other countries that have already turned their backs on coal in electricity production are Belgium, Austria and Sweden.