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Portuguese Entrepreneur Finds his Own Answer to Energy Problems

As the European Commission urges the continent to move away from traditional energy sources and adopt a lifestyle that cares for the environment, Eduardo Rocha is one step ahead.

Rocha, who decided two years ago to turn his family's centuries-old disused watermills into a rural hotel, has harnessed local natural sources to make the venture virtually self-sufficient in energy.

But his two-year endeavor illustrates both the obstacles and the benefits of the Commission's desired shift.

The 45-year-old civil servant ran into problems with the inadequacy of renewable energy technology, its high cost, and a need to keep traditional fossil fuels on standby - all snags recognized by the European Commission.

Rocha wanted comfort for his guests but didn't want to spoil the setting - a picturesque valley of chestnut trees at in Leomil, a 16th-century village about 300 kilometers (180 miles) north of Lisbon - by installing pylons and overhead power lines.

His pockets weren't deep enough to furnish his hotel entirely with solar energy sources, which would have set him back around euro120,000 (US$160,000).

So he hired local engineers to invent a water turbine that could slot into the space where the mill's grindstone had been. Installing solar and hydro power in tandem cost him about euro75,000 (US$100,000) and generates 8.8 kilowatts of power.

The next problem, and one that has undermined wider deployment of renewable energy, was how to store the power.

Again, he got Portuguese engineers to adapt batteries that could hoard the energy from the hybrid system.

Even though he can run his hotel on the renewable sources, he has to keep a diesel generator on hand for peak periods.

His solutions save Rocha money on the running costs as there's been no electricity bill for the four months he's been open, but he has larger loan repayments than he might have had otherwise.

Room prices run from euro55 (US$72) to euro90 (US$118), standard for similar places in the area, where Rocha uses the green technology as an extra marketing tool on top of the natural setting.

Simply hooking his hotel up to the conventional power grid would have cost about euro25,000 (US$33,000) and would have been relatively straightforward, Rocha says.

"Economically, it's not attractive," he said. "But we can't just ignore our environment."

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