LAGOS, Portugal — It's a hot summer weekend and the parking lots around Lagos marina are filling quickly with the BMWs, Range Rovers and Porsche SUVs of the Portuguese yachting set.
The scene is repeated across the sun-splashed Algarve coast, but a new government plan could make the gas-guzzling race to the south coast a thing of the past.
Prime Minister Jose Socrates is seeking to make Portugal a European trendsetter in green transport. In June, he launched groundbreaking plans for a nationwide network of recharging stations that would allow battery driven electric automobiles to cruise the highways.
By 2011, Socrates' Socialist administration wants 1,300 stations around the country where environment-friendly motorists can plug-in their electric cars as part of a drive to "liberate Portugal from its dependency on foreign oil."
The first station in the Mobi-E network opened in Lisbon on July 23. A hundred are due to be up and running by the end of this year and 320 should be in place in 2010. In the meantime Renault-Nissan says that Portugal will be one of the first markets for the launch of its electric vehicles in 2011.
The charging network is part of a wider Portuguese plan to switch to green energy that involves investments in wind-turbines, solar panels and wave farms. The plan takes advantage of the country's location on Europe's sunny, but breezy, southwest tip.
Socrates' motives are not purely ecological. Portugal has no domestic coal, natural gas or oil and has been forced to import most of its energy. By investing in renewables, Western Europe's poorest nation is seeking to find cheaper energy alternatives for itself and to create a niche as an exporter of green technology.
Portugal already produces over one-third of its electricity from renewable sources, double the average of the 27 European Union nations. Socrates says the proportion will rise to 45 percent by 2010.
Near the southern town of Moura, Portugal has built one of the world's biggest photovoltaic power stations. The world's first commercial wave farm began producing electricity from the coast of northern Portugal last year. Hill tops and cliffs around the nation are covered by giant wind turbines, many operated by the power company EDP, Portugal's lead electricity supplier that has emerged as a world leader in wind technology.
"Portugal is a global leader in renewable energy. The next step is to make Portugal a pioneer in zero emission mobility," Socrates said announcing the decision to create a web of recharging sites in gas stations, shopping malls, hotels, airports and parking lots.
Socrates hopes the state investment will encourage vehicle manufacturers to locate new production facilities in his country, which has been hit hard by the global recession.
On July 20, Renault-Nissan announced it will build a new 250 million euro ($355 million) plant in Portugal to produce 60,000 lithium-ion batteries a year for electric cars.
The Franco-Japanese alliance has also agreed to make Portugal one of a number of pilot markets for the roll out of electric cars over the next few years, along with Denmark and Israel. The first vehicles should be on the Portuguese market within the next two years.
Although the early Renault-Nissan models will be made in France and Japan, Portugal is hoping the battery plant and recharging network will be stepping stones to a much greater investment in car manufacturing in Portugal.
The cooperation between Portugal and Renault-Nissan aims to overcome the chicken-and-egg dilemma that has long dogged electric car projects.
Manufacturers have been reluctant to invest in mass production of battery-powered vehicles without guarantees that customers will have a recharging network. At the same time, governments and power companies have been wary of investing in the networks when the cars are not on the market.
To kick start the battery car market, the Portuguese government says it will give the first 5,000 buyers a 5,000 euro ($7,100) reduction on the price of their battery-powered car, plus tax breaks for companies that turn to electric for their fleets. Setting an example, the authorities say 20 percent of all new public vehicles will be battery-run by 2011.
The first phase of the government's plan will set up recharging sites in 21 cities. Customers are expected to be offered a range of charging options from a cheaper six- to eight-hour recharge, to an express deal lasting less than 30 minutes. Drivers will be able to pay using a pre-paid charge card. No announcements have been made about the price of recharging.
The first generation of mass-produced electric vehicles are expected to have a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles) before needing a recharge, meaning they are more suited to urban driving than long-distance trips.
However, according to government estimates, Portugal could have 180,000 electric autos on the roads by 2020. The network of recharging stations could have expanded to 25,000 by then, it says. EDP, a partners in the project, estimates the recharging market could be worth up to 2 billion euros ($2.8 billion) by then.