Wind power growth is surging in Latin America and is expected to lead the region's renewables race with some 10,000 MW of capacity slated to come online in eight years, according to industry experts.
“Wind is growing exponentially as many plants begin operating or are scheduled for construction,” says Nestor Lunas, a research director at Latin American Energy Organization Olade, based in Quito, Ecuador.
He adds there are ambitious wind development projets, mainly in Brazil and Mexico, but also in Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Dominican Republic.
He says current capacity stands at 3,500 MW-4,000 MW and could easily reach 10,000 MW by 2020.
Regional governments are raising project incentives for developers while the technology and infrastructure to build wind parks and connect them to national grids has significantly improved and is much more reliable than in the past, Lunas says.
The story for other renewables is not as promising, however. Last year, Olade’s director of studies and projects Eduardo Noboa predicted bioenergy production could soar 14 times by 2020, driven by a plethora of planned ethanol and biodiesel projects. However, Lunas says those targets now look overhyped as many projects have been scrapped, due to a dearth of funding, technological problems and a raging food-versus-fuel debate, accentuated by food crop crisis’in some countries.
“The industry has not taken off like many expected,” Lunas conceded. Apart from the problems listed above, he says environmental agencies in different Latin American countries have also exerted huge pressure to ensure projects become more environmentally sustainable, raising their cost structure.
Lunas says a slower-than-expected arrival of second-generation biofuel technologies to Latin America has also stalled the industry.
Prospects for solar power south of the border are also unexciting, Lunas adds. He says there is roughly 20 MW of installed capacity in the region, mainly coming from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina but that talk abou large projects elsewher has faded.
“Photovoltaic technology is still too expensive and doesn’t guarantee enough radiation to feed the power grid on a constant matter,” Lunas explains. “Unless project costs drop by half in five years, I don’t see capacity rising very much.”
In a ray of hope for some solar firms, Mario Facio Salazar, a renewable energy expert at Baker & McEnzie in Mexico City, says Mexico and other regional governments are allowing home owners to use solar panels and deduct their energy savings from their power bills – a move that could boosting the industry’s development, though not on a mass-scale.
Salazar agreed bioenergy’s growth will trail behind wind. He adds that in Mexico, biofuels production has halted due to oil giant Pemex’s failure to purchase the fuel at competitive prices. This decline in expected production has offset bigger gains in ethanol-crazed Brazil. Scarce food crops are also making it more expensive for producers to obtain feedstocks south of the border, Facio adds, complicating the growth picture for biofuel producers.
Shale Gas Coud Dent Hydro
Wind apart, hydropower (which status as a renewable energy continues to generate big debates) is expected to grow much stronger than wind. Noboa last year predicted capacity would rise five-fold from 147,879 MW by 2020. However, Lunas says that projection now looks overly ambitious because of the rising popularity of shale gas in Latin America.
Currently, roughly 57% of Latin America and the Caribbean’s electricity generation stems from hydropower while another 40% comes from thermoelectric power plants using fossil fuels and natural gas. The rest comes mainly from wind, biomass and solar, according to Lunas.
Recent shale-gas field discoveries in Mexico and Argentina, combined with regional governments’ efforts (notably Chile and Peru) to assess its production potential, could dent hydro’s growth curve, however.
Last month, Mexican state-owned oil giant Pemex announced it will drill 20-25 oil fields in the Tampico-Misantla area near the Gulf of Mexico to extract shale gas and shale oil. Last year, Pemex was able to extract the fuel from six fields.
According to Pemex, Mexico has 60bn barrels of equivalent crude oil in shale gas reserves of which 31.9bn are shale oil. In Argentina, too, plans are afoot to develop the cleaner fuel, which advocates boast emits 50% less CO2 than coal– albeit at much higher extraction costs.
According to Argentine oil firm Tecpetrol’s energy resources director Mauro Soares, Argentina has the potential to churn out 774tn cubic feet of shale gas, mainly from the Vaca Muerta, Cuenca Chaco-Paranaense and Gulf of San Jorge regions. In gas-dependent Chile, the government has also identified“significant” yet undisclosed shale gas reserves in the Magallanes area.
Shale gas remains very costly and difficult to extract, however. Pemex esimates each well will cost $12-$15 milion to drill. However, it expects those costs to fall to $5-8 million as the technology develops.
Beatriz Olivera, energy and climate change campaign director for Greenpeace Mexico, says shale gas could develop strongly in Latin America if advocates show it can be produced at a lower cost than other non-convential fuel alternatives.
If it can be made more economically feasible, Olivera says shale gas is likely to begin replacing natural gas as the main fuel to feed Latin America’s large network of thermic power stations, raising its contribution beyond the current 40%.
“What this means is that instead of 57% of electricity coming from hydro, we could have 45% from hydro and 52% from thermic plants in 2020,” Olivera muses.
She adds: After big [production] discoveries in Mexico and Argentina, there is a lot of talk about shale gas.”
“It’s the fashionable transition fuel right now and governments are starting to look at its development potential.”
Lead image: Wind turbine via Shutterstock
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