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


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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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