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Deflated expectations: It takes more than a gust to harness wind energy

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Colombia, wind power, green energyThe presence of strong gusts and flat, wide-open spaces would appear tailor-made for the production of electricity from wind energy, yet the reality of harvesting renewable energy is never that straightforward. As Scientific American reported last week, Latin America is beginning to tap into the wind as a source of clean (or at least not fossil fuel-derived) energy. But further investigation into the situation in Colombia reveals the difficulties inherent in building out a wind-energy infrastructure.

Despite the successful 15-turbine Jepírachi Wind Project (pdf) in the country’s northern La Guajira Desert, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), one of the country’s largest utilities, says it has no plans to expand Jepírachi at this time. Whereas the project has been delivering electricity to Colombia’s national grid since 2004, EPM is finding that wind power is more expensive to deliver than the hydropower that provides 70 percent of the country’s energy needs, EPM spokesman Luis Fernando Rodriguez said in an e-mail to Scientific American translated from Spanish.

The original goal for Jepírachi, in addition to connecting with the national grid, had been to install posts and power lines from Puerto Bolívar on the Caribbean coast to Cabo de la Vela, an ecotourism destination 15 kilometers away. This infrastructure hasn’t materialized for two main reasons. EPM doesn’t have the authority to provide service to the area around Jepírachi, which is served by a local utility, and the indigenous Wayúu people living in La Guajira Desert haven’t expressed a strong desire to have such an infrastructure. Instead, they agreed to allow EPM to install Jepírachi on Wayúu land in exchange for deliveries of potable water and healthcare services, according to Rodriguez.

A planned 20-megawatt site at nearby Joutkai is already licensed and is awaiting construction, Rodriguez said, although EPM is not involved with this project. However, the 200-megawatt wind farm proposed for the peninsula’s Ipapure region is little more than a feasibility study at this point and isn’t expected to move forward for at least a decade, according to Rodriguez.

Wind-power technology isn’t competitive economically with hydroelectricity on a large scale in Colombia, so it’s difficult to develop new projects, Rodriguez said. This is why, despite having Latin America’s first megawatt-size wind power installation at Jepírachi, Colombia’s wind-energy infrastructure hasn’t grown in the past six years. Rodriguez added that EPM continues to study these and other projects with the hope of expanding them should demand and opportunity arise.

Image of a wind turbine at Jepírachi © Larry Greenemeier/Ana Maria Blanco

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  1. 1. gunslingor 7:13 am 07/7/2010

    "EPM is finding that wind power is more expensive to deliver than the hydropower"
    -well dah! Wind compared with hydropower, always go with hydro, without question. But whatever it takes to stop burning, thats all that matters.

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  2. 2. jerryd 8:31 pm 07/7/2010

    Hydro will always beat any power source. Why didn’t they just build the windgens close to the town? Even if not as productive there, it still costs less than stringing power lines.

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  3. 3. macadamia man 5:03 am 07/9/2010

    Anbody ever do any work on the impact of future or current variability of water supplies when tied to – as all river or glacial melt-powered hydro has to be – "current" precipitaton patterns compared to the cost of establishing wide area wind power harvesting? As a resident of the driest continent in the world whose massive (for us) 60s investment in Snowy Mtns hydro has proved a short-lived benefit as the anticipated flows collapsed over the last decade or so (of catchment drought and shifting precipitation patterns overall), I am beginning to wonder if the shape of things to come will leave solar and wind or wave/tidal stacking up with geo-thermal as the only reliable (or affordable) alternatives to nuclear or fossil fuels rather faster than either the dam builders or the economic modellers would like us to believe.

    Achieving the anticipated 30 year plus pay-backs for massive hydro projects may get pretty tricky if the rivers they are built on run even a little drier, don’t you think?

    Once again, judging future power returns based on "historical" flow data is looking more and more shaky to me.

    I wonder if the same geographically-specific harvesting issue applies to wind and tidal? While if geo-thermal goes west as well, can I assume none of us is likely to be around to notice a problem?

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