Brazil’s wind energy sector whirring into action

Brazil achieves new record for electricity generated by wind power, as the country looks to a mix of renewables in order to make its energy mix cleaner and more reliable.

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A wind farm at Rio do Fogo in Brazil’s northeastern region of Rio Grande do Norte. The country’s wind energy sector is bigger than ever and is set to continue growing. Photo courtesy of Flickr / the Danish Wind Industry Association.

Brazil’s wind energy sector is reaching new heights as the country aims to diversify its energy mix and become more resilient against the effects of climate change. Brazil has added more than 1.6GW of wind turbines to the national grid since the start of 2015, and on November 2nd it set a new record for electricity generated through wind power, when some 4,215 MWa (average Megawatt-hours) was generated throughout the day, enough to power some 18 million homes, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

The total installed capacity of wind power in Brazil virtually doubled between September 2014 and August 2015, when the country’s windfarms put out 3,364 MWa. This upward trend has left Brazil on the verge of becoming the world’s 7th biggest producer of wind power, having been 10th on the list in 2014, and there are enough projects in the pipeline to boost the country’s total wind capacity by another 10 GW in the near future.

These indicators of Brazil’s progress come around the same time as the Energy Minister, Eduardo Braga, suggested that Brazil is aiming to replace up to 15 GW of fossil fuel-fired power plants with cleaner sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal power. A report from GlobalData, released this week, also suggests that Brazil is on track to increase the share of its electricity generated by non-hydro renewable power to 25% by 2025, rising from approximately 17 GW in 2014 to a projected 57.8 GW in ten years’ time.

Those dirty and – just as crucially – costly gas and diesel plants were brought online largely in response to the 2001 drought that crippled the country’s hydroelectric power sector, a situation that has threatened to repeat itself in the midst of the severe drought currently gripping some of Brazil’s most populous and economically important regions.

With the added pressure of high energy costs contributing to a far-from-ideal economic climate in which Brazil is suffering from recession and stubbornly high inflation, Braga explained that “the energy sector’s great challenge is to replace [the gas and diesel plants] with new, efficient, clean, cheap, modern 21st Century energy, in order to make Brazil’s electricity system more competitive in international terms”.

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A solar radiation map, showing the potential for solar power generation across Brazil, generally between 5 and 6 kWh per square metre per day. Image courtesy of SolarPACES via Rios Vivos.

It has long been known that Brazil has fantastic potential for wind power, and for renewable energy more generally. Some have criticised the comparative lack of action in embracing this opportunity, especially when one considers that, even with the strides now being taken in the wind power sector, investment in hydroelectric power continues to be many times higher than that in alternative renewable sources. Studies have consistently warned that the effects of climate change, which are already playing out in the form of drought in the Amazon basin, could significantly limit Brazil’s hydroelectric capacity as rainfall decreases and rivers dry up, a potentially catastrophic scenario as the country still gets around three quarters of its electricity from hydropower.

There is also ample space for development of Brazil’s fledgling solar industry, with the first steps towards large-scale deployment of solar power only having been taken in 2014. At the most recent count, some 3.2 GW of solar power capacity had been approved for construction, and it is hoped that this much power will be generated from solar by 2018 at the latest. Experts suggest that solar radiation rates, which tend to serve as a reliable indicator of the potential for solar power generation per square metre per day, are on average twice as high as those found across Germany – which has established itself as a global leader in solar power generation.

There are several reasons for Brazil’s somewhat tardy embrace of some renewable power opportunities, particularly in the case of solar. These include the historic focus of financial and political capital on large hydroelectric schemes, the reluctance of successive governments to guarantee renewable energy producers a certain chunk of the contracts up for grabs at government-sponsored energy auctions, and high import tariffs that significantly increase the cost of solar panels manufactured abroad. However, it would seem that Brazilian authorities are making a concerted effort to do away with these institutional obstacles, and the latest figures for both wind and solar power instalments would suggest that Brazil is indeed finally starting to catch up with its vast potential.

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