Portugal just ran its entire country on renewable power alone, for four days straight. From May, 7 until May, 11, the country used nothing but solar, wind, and hydroelectric power.
This is significant only partly because of the length of time that Portugal managed. More than 100 hours is impressive anywhere. But perhaps more important is that Portugal has beaten Northern European countries like Germany and the Netherlands. In Europe, southern countries like Portugal are often seen as lagging behind, or even backward, especially when it comes to renewables. Short-sighted policies like Spain’s Sun Tax don’t help (this taxes people who produce their own solar power and use it themselves, instead of feeding it into the grid), but Portugal’s record four-day run shows that the South isn’t just about golf and tourism.
The viability of renewables as a sole energy source is looking increasingly plausible. Germany recently managed to produce so much wind power in a day that it ended up paying consumers to use it, and the Netherlands produces almost half its total energy needs from wind power. And because many neighboring European countries have import and export agreements to share excess energy, a glut in, say, Portugal doesn't mean that the excess sun and wind power is going to waste. In fact, Portugal not only powered itself over those four days last week, but also exported energy. Even the U.K. managed to run without burning coal for half a day this month, for the first time in over 100 years.
Portugal is pretty well placed to lead in renewables. It gets plenty of sun, and it occupies a strip along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, meaning it also gets plenty of wind. And despite a 2012 reduction in government support for wind power, the industry is adding lots of capacity every year.
At this rate, we may all be surprised at how fast Europe manages to produce the majority, or even all, of its power from renewables.