The biggest hurdle to generating wind power appears to be the region’s isolation from major power demands largely located to the north in both Chile and Argentina, the two nations with jurisdiction over Patagonia.
Last year, three Vestas V-52 turbines of 0.85MW each were installed by local chemicals firm Methanex to help power its plant in Cabo Negro, in Magallanes, southern Chile. With natural gas prices expected to increase, there is a strong incentive to set up wind projects, says Arturo Kunstmann, a renewable energy professor at the University of Magallanes. Jorge Michela, senior project engineer at Methanex, agrees that rising gas prices were a crucial factor in the company’s switch to wind. "That was the main trigger," he says. "If there was no natural gas problem it would have been very difficult for Methanex to be interested."
Impressive wind factors
The turbines, on 49-metre towers, face steady winds at around ten metres per second. Michela says the plant, now eight months old, has achieved maximum output 62% of the time — known as the capacity factor — although he expects a long-term average of 54%. "We have not completed the first year and the months of least wind are on their way," he says.
Economic considerations drew at least one other regional player to tap wind, says José Ignacio Escobar, executive vice-president at the Chilean Renewable Energies Association, citing the Aysen Electricity Company’s 2MW wind farm in Alto Baguales, near the town of Coyhaique north of Magallanes.
Alto Baguales supplies 55% of Coyhaique’s power, and the rest comes from diesel power, Escobar says. "They have capacity factors of over 50%. If you are replacing diesel with over 50% capacity-factor wind farms, the numbers are very attractive."
Escobar believes it makes sense for wind to supply local demand in these regions, but points to substantial hurdles to exporting wind power from Patagonia.
"The distances involved are more than 2,000 kilometres from the centres of demand," Escobar says. The price of building power infrastructure could be reasonable if the region could generate 5GW of power or more, he argues.
"We are a very small country and 5GW would be around 80% of all Chilean power capacity," he adds.
But Chile’s government would need a radically different approach to wind power and would have to change its modest goals. Nearly two years into its mandate, it is only just coming round to fulfilling an electoral promise to raise the target for the renewable component of power production from the current mandatory 10% by 2024 to the higher aim of 20% by 2020. It also views wind as just one of four possible renewable industries, alongside solar, geothermal and hydropower.
On the Argentine side of the border, Dr Erico Spinadel, president of the Argentina Wind Energy Association, agrees that distance will continue to hold back Patagonian wind development.
But he points out that the region has been serving as a testing ground for developers such as Denmark’s Vestas and Germany’s Enercon, as well as Argentine firms Invap and Impsa, the latter of which is using the strong winds to design a 2.5MW turbine prototype. India’s Suzlon and China’s Guodian are also eyeing the region.
Spinadel says the region is suitable for testing offshore turbines without the complexity of setting up offshore. "The area of strong winds is 40o to 50o south. In those latitudes the only land is Patagonia and New Zealand."
Should the region’s governments agree on development, Oaxaca may provide a suitable model; this region could produce more than 6GW of wind power capacity thanks to a programme where Mexico’s state electricity monopoly builds transmission capacity in exchange for a commitment by firms to rent it.
Patagonia is in the early stages of what could become a significant relationship with wind power.