Brazil has suddenly realized the attractiveness of its immense wind power potential. Once deemed too expensive and small-scale, unable to meet the country’s power needs, it is now braced to grow sevenfold to 2014.
Brazil has today a dismal 1 gigawatt of wind power installed capacity. But the government’s regulatory agency has already approved an additional 6.7 gigawatts to 2014. Wind power got the largest share in the last energy auctions for new electricity capacity. Bid prices for wind were lower than those offered by gas-fired thermo projects. Wind farm bid prices have dropped 33 percent since 2009. The Brazilian regulatory agency estimates that wind farms could yield over 12 gigawatts in 2020. Experts and industry representatives have told me they expect wind farms to get a larger share of the electric power grid. They estimate that total installed capacity could almost triple from 2014 to 2020, nearing 20 gigawatts, provided the government does not hold investors back.
Several myths about wind power are falling down, and its many advantages are starting to show. The first to go was that it was far too costly. Today prices are lower than those for hydro and thermo power generation. An industry CEO told me, however, that these lower prices are in part a result of the European crisis. They could increase up to US$ .04 per Kw if the industry recovers in Europe and the United States. Even then, wind power would continue to be competitive.
A common argument of the anti-wind power coalition was that turbines are too inefficient to become an adequate alternative. They used median figures of usually old foreign manuals to support this claim. A CEO from a European wind energy corporation told me that Brazilian wind was of “very good quality” because it blew more hours during the day, and more days over one year, than the average for Europe. “And almost all the time, in the same direction,” he added.
I’ve asked sources from the wind power industry for a measure of the operating wind farm’s actual capacity factor (ratio of potential to effective generation in a year). My expectation was it would be fairly high, given that wind is less intermittent in Brazil. The measured average capacity factor is 40 percent for the small sample of existing wind farms. The sample has a greater participation of older, less productive turbines. This figure compares to 28-30 percent in the U.S. and Europe, and 31 percent for Australia.
In Australia, several wind farms have capacity factors well above the average, ranging from 35 percent for the Portland Wind Farm to 39.2 percent for the Cullerin Range Wind Farm. Wind farms under construction in Brazil using updated turbine technology will increase wind power capacity factor to 42 percent in 2013 and 45 percent in 2015.
Those opposed to wind come usually from a network of technocrats and contractors with vested interests in the construction, maintenance, and management of huge hydropower plants. They were able to impose the idea that wind power could never be at the core of the Brazilian power grid. Its role was meant to be “supplementary and small.”
During the military government, a smaller but strong network of interests was built to support nuclear power, and for the first time breached the barriers imposed by the hydropower coalition.
In 2001, a severe drought and the lack of adequate backup for hydro plants provoked an extensive blackout in the country. Private investors saw the crisis as an opportunity to start building coal, oil, and gas-fired thermopower plants. The government admitted the possibility of thermopower generation only as an emergency measure, but it ended up being admitted to the core of the official energy policy. As a result, thermopower installed capacity more than doubled since the blackout, from 10.6 gigawatts in 2000 to 24.3 gigawatts in 2009.
Interestingly enough, wind blows with greater regularity, stability and intensity in the northeastern part of Brazil precisely during the drought season, when hydropower reservoirs are at their lowest. Wind power would be the best clean, renewable option as a backup for hydropower during the dry season. But the fossil lobby was stronger. Besides, from the viewpoint of big contractors thermopower did not represent as deep a paradigm shift in energy infrastructure building as wind farms and photovoltaics would.
Change began almost by chance. In 2002, the government started a small $3.8 billion program to generate 3.7 gigawatts by 2007 from “alternative” energy sources such as small hydro, biomass, and wind. After several updates, PROINFA (Program of Incentives for Alternative Electricity Sources) finally took off in 2003. Results have been commensurate to the program’s limited goals: 1.1 gigawatts of installed “alternative renewable energy,” of which 61 percent comes from wind farms. An additional 2.2 gigawatts has been approved for the next two years, 51 percent of it from wind farms.
Modest as it was, this incentive program opened the way for the installation of the first wind farms in the country. It has also led to the constitution of a pro-wind power alliance of interests joining wind farm operators, engineers with expertise on wind power (a scarce intellectual asset in Brazil), turbine producers, and environmentalists. Wind power got the attention of the media, and started a path of its own, independently from PROINFA. With the last auctions, wind farms’ installed capacity will reach 7.7 gigawatts by 2104.
The 20-gigawatt outlook for 2020 is still too small when compared to the country’s potential. Last updated estimates of on-shore wind power potential are around 143 gigawatts. Some experts say they wouldn’t be surprised if better measurement showed it to be 70 to 100 percent greater. There are no official measures for off-shore potential. Some unofficial figures say it is between 170 gigawatts and 200 gigawatts. The 8.7 million square kilometers (3.4 million square miles) of coastal area could be very productive, according to some prospective investors. They say conditions near the coast are very good for the installation of off-shore wind farms. Even considering on-shore estimates alone, Brazil would be exploring only 14 percent of its wind potential by 2020 if the 20 gigawatt scenario holds.