Pego's coal-fired plant was officially closed down in November last year

Portugal’s coal fired plants “could be reactivated”

DGEG and REN studying return to electricity production using coal

The DGEG (general directorate of energy and geology) and REN (the country’s electricity network) has been studying the possibility of reopening the coal-fired plants of Sines and Pego “in case of a situation of emergency for the national electricity system” for the last two weeks.

The news comes in this week’s printed edition of Expresso, which adds, in the opening paragraph “but the government discounts this possibility” (meaning it discounts the likelihood of a situation of emergency).

The fact that the DGEG would act against the government’s own intentions makes no sense at all. It is an agency of the State.

What seems more likely is that this idea is being ‘trailed slowly’, at a time when other countries are also back-peddaling on their own ‘climate targets’:

Deutsche Welle for example explains that “the economics ministers of the 16 German states have already called for an examination of longer operating times for both coal-fired and nuclear power plants”; Spain, we already know, has kept coal-fired plants going (as they are now supplying Portugal with energy, after the country’s precipitous closure seemingly to gain international acclaim…); Italy has said it is considering reactivating some of its coal-fired plants, while the UK is going the same way as Germany.

Yesterday in Rome, PM António Costa was busy preparing the ground for Europe to accept the ‘interconnections with the Iberian Peninsula’, which it has in the past been so loathe to contemplate.

And, remember, everything was put in place for changes like this to move forwards in the final hours of 2021: that strange European Commission proposal to consider “certain types of nuclear” and natural gas options ‘green’.

In other words, Expresso’s article is very probably just another move in a chess game that began long before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

So what exactly are we being told (this week)?

According to Expresso, the DGEG asked EDP “around two weeks ago” to suspend dismantling of Sines power station “so that the two groups of generators that are still standing (of the four that existed) could be reactivated in case of necessity”.

The Pego plant, property of Tejo Energy, is still operational, says the paper, even though production “stopped” officially in November last year.

The businesses running the plants are ready to get systems back up operating to the extent that both could furnish 628 MW (this is roughly half of the supply that Sines used to generate).

But, says the paper, the final decision “is political. And politically, at the Environment Ministry, there is no desire to move forwards with this scenario”.

It has to be said that the new government, due to be sworn in at the end of this month, is almost certain to produce a new minister for the environment.

The current one, João Pedro Matos Fernandes, has stressed on at least two occasions that he believes there is “no necessity” to reopen the coal-fired plants – and there is what Expresso describes as  “an operational challenge” to the plan: both plants have run out of coal.

It’s here that one has to ask why a national paper of Expresso’s standing is writing a story like this if nothing is likely to come of it?

The answer is ‘something IS likely to come of it’, whatever Mr Matos Fernandes may be saying publicly, and whatever the ‘operational challenges’.

It’s particularly interesting too that all Expresso’s sources ‘have asked to remain anonymous “invoking the delicacy of the subject”.

Again, the question has to be, ‘why is the subject ‘delicate’ if the government is really unlikely to give this policy change the green light?

Bottom line: all the anonymous sources suggest it will take at least two, possibly as many as four months to reactivate Pego and Sines and “allow the national electrical system to operate with a margin of additional comfort compared to the current scenario, in which the combination of record prices for natural gas and drought has provoked elevated wholesale electricity prices (and contributed to the fact that in February Portugal was importing from Spain the highest level of electricity in 36 years”.

But it is nonetheless a short-term plan that could work.

“Coal-fired plants would not replace gas-fired combined cycle plants or hydroelectric plants as a flexibility tool to respond quickly to intraday variations in wind production (coal-fired thermoelectric plants take much longer to heat up and cool down and have their maximum available) . But they could go back to continuous operation (as happens with nuclear plants), filling a relevant part of the country’s electricity demand and minimizing the use of gas or hydroelectric plants”, concludes Expresso.

EU leaders will be meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday next week, with energy, and how best to move away from Russian supplies being top of the agenda.

Meeting with southern counterparts yesterday in Rome, Portugal’s PM stopped short of saying “we told you so” regarding the issue of ‘interconnections with the Iberian Peninsula’ (and the old chestnut of potentially importing a lot more liquified natural gas from the United States)

If we had made these interconnections when they were agreed, Europe would not be in the dependency problem it is in today” – he told Lusa, adding that the EU has to “learn from the past and not waste another second…”

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