Uruguay recently announced plans to develop wind farms in hopes of ending its dependency on oil by 2013. During the 1970s, Uruguay’s oil usage peaked at about 70 percent of its total energy production. Today, oil is used to produce about 40 percent of Uruguay’s energy. Uruguay does not produce any oil, so it must import foreign oil for its needs. To reduce imports and decrease the negative effect of biofuels on the environment, Uruguay has developed new sources of energy production.
Hydroelectric power, which now accounts for almost half of the electricity produced in Uruguay, has helped to decrease oil consumption. However, Uruguay has exhausted its resources of hydroelectric power—its rivers are used to their maximum potential. Also, Uruguay has faced problems with hydroelectric power. Uruguay’s geographical position exposes it to the Niño-Niña, which causes variations in ocean temperatures that affect rainfall and, therefore, hydroelectric capacity. For example, for several weeks in 2008, there was only enough water in Uruguay’s reservoirs to operate three percent of its hydroelectric plants. Because these climate changes occur every five to eight years and are difficult to predict, the government is seeking more reliable options for energy.
Recently, the government announced plans to begin installing as many wind farms as its electricity grid can handle. Three developers so far have contracted to sell wind power at rates 40 percent cheaper than energy produced by oil. These developers have guaranteed the cheaper price will remain fixed for the next twenty years. These lower costs will make wind energy more competitive, helping drive down the demand for oil and encouraging further development of wind power.
The director of the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining, Ramón Méndez, predicts that Uruguay could generate 25-28 percent of its power from wind and from biomass (energy coming from the incineration of trash). However, he also warns that wind power is difficult to control. Mendez estimates that on a “blustery, summer night” wind power could generate up to 60 percent of the country’s electricity. But if the demand at that time is low, the surge in energy could cause problems, such as blackouts in the power grid.
Energy experts consider South American countries like Uruguay an untapped resource for wind energy production, which to date has been dominated by North America, Europe, and Asia. However, investors and governments are now realizing the potential of wind power in South America’s large, open spaces. Installation of wind power turbines also may help social and economic development of South America. By purchasing previously unused land or installing turbines on farmland, more capital will flow into South American economies, encouraging development.
Nonetheless, there are disadvantages to wind power. Some find turbines noisy and unattractive to the natural landscape. Many turbines are required to produce a usable amount of energy. Also, these turbines and wind power plants are expensive to construct. Finally, as Mendez points out, the wind is uncontrollable and thus not entirely reliable. If Uruguay relies too heavily on wind power, it may face blackouts during times of little wind or during wind gusts.
While there are disadvantages to wind power, Uruguay may be a model to other countries that want to decrease their dependency on foreign oil and encourage development of clean energy sources.
Discussion: Is the combination of hydro and wind power as the two main energy sources in Uruguay only possible because of its small size and geography, or could other, larger countries look to Uruguay as an energy example?