Wind-power generation in Brazil has grown at a remarkable rate in a very short time. From practically nothing in 2009, installed capacity has now topped the 9GW mark with around 360 wind projects in operation, according to Abeeolica, the country's wind energy association.
A further 175 projects are now under construction, representing BRL 25 billion in investment ($7 billion). By the end of 2019, Brazil expects to have 18GW of wind power in operation, which should be enough make it the sixth-largest wind market in the world behind China, the US, Germany, India and Spain.
While the construction boom continues, developers have been looking further into the future, tracking possible new wind sites in the north, north-east, and south of the country. Brazil still has huge areas yet to be developed for wind power, but these areas often lack the necessary infrastructure, which holds back investment.
"The gradual introduction of bigger and more powerful turbines with larger rotors and taller towers has changed areas that were previously considered unfit for wind generation into potentially attractive investments," says Odilon Camargo, president of wind-resource-assessment consultants Camargo Schubert. "That especially applies to those that can be easily connected to the grid - a key factor in the last auction."
The race to cash in on the growth potential involves a number of states. Bahia, Pernambuco and Rio Grande do Sul already have up-to-date wind-resource data.
Paraiba is close to achieving the same. But preparations to update the wind atlas for the whole country, in the hands of the Energy Research Company EPE, were halted some years ago.
The existing one, crucial as a guide to entrepreneurs and investors, dates back to 2001. It indicated a wind-power potential of up to 150GW.
"Upgrading the atlas would be quick and at a relatively low cost," says Camargo. "We have mapped virtually every major wind basin in Brazil with high resolution and accuracy using hundreds of measurement towers. Only a few small areas are yet to be covered."
The individual states that have invested in upgraded wind resource assessments can show good results. The north-eastern state of Bahia, for example, published its new atlas in late 2013, which identified a potential for 195GW in areas with wind speeds above 7 metres per second (m/s) at a height of 150 metres.
This has attracted BRL 22.9 billion in wind projects that will be operational before the end of 2019. According to Windpower Intelligence, the data division of Windpower Monthly, Bahia currently has a total installed capacity of 1,652MW, the third highest in Brazil.
"In 2019, when the projects contracted so far will be ready, Bahia will have taken the lead in generating electricity from wind," says Ceslo Rodriguez, director of the state's Secretariat of Energy and Infrastructure (Seinfra).
This will be the result of projects allocated in recent auctions held by the federal government, in which Bahia was the big winner. Until then, the small north-eastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, which currently has 2,775MW of installed capacity from 97 operational wind farms, holds top spot.
Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil, has also identified wind potential to attract new investment. Its wind atlas, published late in 2014, identified a potential of 217GW at a height of 100 metres and wind speed of 7m/s - although more than half of this was offshore, including lakes.
At 150 metres and with higher wind speeds, the onshore potential rises to 245GW. The state currently has 1,755MW of operational wind capacity.
In order to attract investments that can create jobs, improve local infrastructure and regional development, states provide tax incentives, logistical support and streamline the bureaucracy on environmental licensing.
In Bahia, for example, much of the investment is concentrated in the interior, a historically needy semi-arid region, rather than on the coast.
"We seek major investors with technological expertise in the power generation sector," says Seinfra's Rodriguez. The list of developers includes domestic players Casa dos Ventos and Renova Energia, as well as experienced international firms such as Italy's Enel Green Power and Germany's Sowitec.
Manufacturers range from global turbine makers such as Gamesa and Alstom to Brazilian component suppliers like blade maker Tecsis and tower manufacturer Torrebras.
Casa dos Ventos is focused largely on development in the north-east, with 15GW being developed in Bahia, Ceara and Pernambuco. "It's been seven years since we started operations in the region," says Lucas Araripe, director of projects and business development.
The prime attraction of the northern and north-eastern states is simple - the region has excellent wind resources. The wind farms produce average capacity factors in the 50% range, says Elbia Gannoum, president of Abeeolica, which make them very competitive in energy auctions.
The southern states have good, rather than excellent, wind resources, but their access to a grid connection is better.
"There is no doubt that the north-east of Brazil holds the best winds in the world," says Carmargo.
"Constant, adequately strong without extreme gusts, and in areas that are virtually uninhabited and hardly used for other activities. This is down to a rare combination of stabilised trade winds, accelerated by a semi-stationary high-pressure centre over the Atlantic."
For developers, these features translate into increased productivity and higher returns on investments. "The winds carry less turbulence and blow mostly in one direction, which can also contribute to better performance," says Araripe.
In the search for a consistently high capacity factor, developers are increasing their use of sensing equipment on wind sites, including Lidar, Sodar, laser and soundwave gauges.
These resources give a more precise understanding of wind behaviour in real time, and the optimum placement of the turbines.
"The new generation of wind turbines will be built with larger rotors and higher towers, both of which provide better performance and lower costs for electricity generation," says Camargo. Existing projects, even those with turbines that are coming out of warranty, can also benefit from improved understanding of the site's wind resources, he adds.
Amid Brazil's current political and industrial corruption crisis, with its economy in freefall and its hydropower resources still suffering from the effects of a two-year drought, wind power is providing one of its few good news stories.