Por Steven Collins*
Uruguay is demonstrating that there is more to renewable energy than lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewable energy is a big deal inUruguay; over two-thirds of the country’s energy comes from hydropower. However, droughts in past years have left the country’s reservoirs dangerously low, and as a result, hydropower facilities have struggled to meet the country’s rising energy demands. To help, Uruguay has turned to the private sector to kick-start the development of other renewable energy technologies, primarily wind and solar. There are now dozens of projects, both public and private, making Uruguay’s energy sector a greener industry, and the country is now focused intensely not only on achieving ambitious nationwide green energy goals, but also on better understanding and incorporating environmental and social concerns as it works to meet those goals.
IDB’s intervention in wind power in Uruguay is not only supporting the country’s efforts to meet its objective of increasing clean energy generation capacity by 15 percent by 2015, but is also helping the government establish new national environmental standards for wind power development.
IDB safeguard specialists look at a range of environmental, social, health and safety concerns at all stages of a project. In doing so, they work hand-in-hand with IDB clients and relevant government agencies to ensure that, when it comes to the environment and society, IDB-financed projects create optimal outcomes while minimizing risks and negative impacts.
Adjustments and Improvements
Starting at design, the team looked anew at the environmental and social studies for the project to make sure that they were aligned with the Bank’s standards and international best practices. These standards and practices helped identify areas for small adjustments that have since proven to be critical ingredients in the farm’s overall success. Notably, these adjustments involved taking a new look at noise pollution and “flickering”— an unavoidable visual effect generated as the rotating turbine blades interrupt sunlight and cast intermittent shadows on surrounding areas. Studies had identified such issues, but in the attempt to apply lessons from these studies in the real world, it became clear that a fresh approach was needed. IDB partnered with Abengoa, a leading international company in the renewable energy sector, to come up with a new plan, relocating one of the turbines as part of their project’s overall design. This had the immediate effect of reducing the project’s overall impact on its neighbors, and also eliminated the need for planting a bio-screen commonly used as natural noise and light barrier, but which often involves the use of invasive and non-native plants.
IDB also supported the project managers in finding new ways of consulting with area residents, a step that is not mandatory in Uruguay for projects of this size and nature, but that the IDB requires to ensure that local concerns are taken into consideration. At Palmatir, this consultation process didn’t reveal any major concerns, but it did help build community support by increasing understanding of the wind farm’s benefits. The IDB also helped establish a community platform to allow people to voice complaints, comments or concerns about the project to enable quick resolution of any issues that might arise.
Additionally, some of the original environmental studies had room for improvement. The company took a second look at issues related to the migratory flight patterns of birds and bats (bird and bat collisions are one of the principal causes of wind turbine shutdowns, which can cause significant financial losses). Detailed studies, conducted over the course of a full year, confirmed that while there were significantly more species in the project area, no critical (or endangered) species should be affected by the Palmatir wind farm. Based on this experience, Uruguay’s national environmental agency, DINAMA, is now requiring that all wind projects conduct a full year of studies as part of their environmental assessment process.
Since May 2014, Palmatir has been up and running at an exceptional 98 percent efficiency rate. A 50 MW wind farm like this sends enough energy into the grid to provide electricity for 50,000 homes. After just four months of operation, Palmatir had already produced 64,000 MWh of clean energy, avoiding emissions of more than 30,500 tons of CO2 equivalent, exceeding project expectations.
A Role Model
Already, Palmatir is serving as a vital model in Uruguay for nearly two dozen wind farms that are currently being built or planned and that will add 1,336 MW of clean energy to the grid over the next few years. Bankability enhancements to key project contracts required by the IDB have also been incorporated in other wind and solar projects in Uruguay, thus enabling the successful implementation of the government’s non-conventional renewable energy program. Through the close collaboration of the IDB with the company, Uruguay’s energy utility company (UTE), and environmental agency (DINAMA), the project has demonstrated the value of integrating environmental and social concerns at early stages of infrastructure development, as well as the incorporation of sound contract provisions ensuring its environmental, social and financial sustainability. UTE’s engineers and technical specialists regularly visit Palmatir to increase their knowledge of maintenance and operations, with the long-term aim of increasing their capacity for managing a sustainable wind energy sector. Of the 21 new wind farms currently being planned, six of them will be owned and operated by UTE.
This post is part of a blog series on development effectiveness featuring stories on learning and experiences from IDB projects and evaluations. To learn more about design, monitoring and evaluation of IDB projects visit deo.iadb.org.
Learn more about this project and others in the Bank’s 2014 Sustainability Report, available here.
*Steven Collins is a Senior Environmental Specialist for the Environmental Safeguards Unit of the Inter-American Development Bank, where he focuses on large infrastructure projects. Steven holds degrees in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Before joining the Bank, he was head of impact analysis at UK Export Credit Guarantee Department in the United Kingdom. Steven has worked extensively in sectors including: oil and gas, energy production and transmission, and commercial and residential development.