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Problems ahead for Argentina ambitions -- Utilities announce 3000 MW plan

Power giant Endesa Spain and fellow Spanish company Elecnor have signed agreements to create a jointly owned wind power subsidiary that will seek to develop 3000 MW of wind plant over the next ten years in the Patagonian region of Argentina. The first phase, apparently of around 350 MW in five separate developments, is scheduled to be online within two years of the formal launch of Energias Argentinas (Enarsa) on February 5. According to the utilities, the wind plant will account for 2% of Argentina's 14000 MW national demand and 1.3% of installed capacity.

The driving force behind Enarsa's 3000 MW plans is mainly coming from Elecnor subsidiary Enerfin. The companies have undertaken and financed wind studies in southern Argentina for the last three years, says Elecnor's Federico Schmid. Under the 50-50 joint venture agreement between Elecnor and Endesa, Enerfin will work to realise the wind power potential identified in three strategic wind plans for Chubut, Neuquén and Río Negro and in a fourth province, Santa Cruz. The task of Endesa subsidiary Endesa Cogeneration y Renovables (Ecyr) is to select the technology supplier. Enerfin and Ecyr have already worked together in Spain, in Galicia, while in Argentina, Ecyr parent Endesa generates 25% of the country's electricity. It also has a majority ownership of one of the two distributors in Buenos Aires, and a big minority stake in the other.

Preferential rights

So far Enerfin has clinched over 50 agreements with local governments in the four provinces. Some of these reward the company's research and investment by awarding it a window of exclusivity in developing the potential projects. It is these preferential rights to specific zones for a period of ten years that Elecnor will exercise in the Enarsa venture.

Elecnor is the turnkey contractor for implementation of the projects and will contract local companies to carry out the work. The first phase of Enarsa's development includes a project of 70-100 MW, split into two plant near Puerto Madryn in Chubut, and 10 MW wind plants at San Carlos de Bariloche in Río Negro and at Cutral Có in Neuquén. A 150-200 MW wind farm at El Chocón in Neuquén will serve as an alternative power source for Endesa's 1200 MW El Chocón hydroelectric plant. Cutral Có is part of the same project as Auca Mahuida, some 20 kilometres away, where significant wind resources could generate a further 30-40 MW.

According to Elecnor, Endesa's role is to supply the wind turbines, which it will do through its 100% owned subsidiary MADE. The wind turbine subsidiary has supplied MADE turbines for more than 250 MW of wind plant in Spain. Enerfin director Guillermo Planas Roca, however, says "nothing is written in stone" about the technology supplier. "Enarsa's sole objective is to generate competitive wind power and not to provide an outlet for MADE technology," he adds.

Ecyr's Carlos Gual de Torella appears to agree: "Although the logical thing is to install in-house turbines wherever possible, if a certain site requires machines that MADE does not make -- a 3 MW machine, say -- then we would have to look elsewhere." He might not have to look far. Endesa is pursuing a merger with Spanish utility Iberdrola, co-owner of the largest wind turbine maker in Spain, Gamesa Eólica. If that merger comes off, Gamesa turbines would become a likely possibility for the project.

Meantime, Enarsa's most immediate projects for Madryn -- where an environmental impact assessment has already been approved -- will probably use MADE 660 kW turbines, says De Torella, unless MADE's new 800 kW unit, still being tested, is chosen. But Schmid says that no technology less than 750 kW will be used. In future, says Roca, only megawatt technology will be considered.

Whatever the choice of technology, the Argentinean host provinces for the projects are insisting that significant percentages of the turbines are made locally, Schmid explains. For this reason, Enarsa will be looking to produce turbines in Argentina. Ecyr's De Torella says towers will be made locally from the start.

The problems

For the entire 3000 MW to be realised requires not only the clinching of power purchase contracts, but also a considerable extension to existing transmission lines to get the power to where it is needed. For the most southern projects around Puerto Madryn this is a particular problem. The Patagonian transmission system is not interconnected with the rest of Argentina and the vast wind resources in the area could not be marketed outside of Patagonia, which has limited demand.

Interconnection projects are on the drawing board, however, and if Enarsa manages to at least secure legal agreements for the construction of around 1000 MW of wind plant, it would form part of any consortium investing in a transmission interconnection, Schmid says.

Selling the wind power is another hurdle in a country with some of the cheapest electricity in the world. Even in Chubut, which adds $0.005/kWh to the federal incentive of $0.001/kWh, wind is still facing tough competition. Enarsa has hopes for a contract with an aluminium factory in Madryn, which has an 800 MW requirement. Roca also says that Enarsa is in contact with brokers analysing the emerging carbon credit trading market. According to Schmid, however, it is premature to consider carbon credits for South America. "Our main focus now is to shape up the economic framework," says Roca.

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