In Brazil, the wind is blowing in a new era of renewable energy

October 30, 2013
In Northeastern Brazil, energy companies are erecting wind farms to capitalize on the constant winds that have challenged farming families for generations. (Juan Forero and Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

With its abundant dams and rivers that carry more fresh water than any other country, Brazil — big and bountiful — essentially runs on hydropower. But it turns out that the country can also count on a good strong breeze.

Wind is emerging as a prize for energy planners here who see the howling gusts that arrive from the east as a way to offset the fresh limits imposed on hydropower.

A string of wind-turbine parks is being erected in Brazil’s windiest stretches, in what planners see as the beginning of an extraordinary transformation. No one expects that wind will outpace dams as the main source of electricity here. But the goals remain audacious for a country that projects an annual increase in electricity consumption of up to 5 percent in coming years.


Wind turbines in the municipality of Caetite. A string of turbine parks is being erected in the windiest stretches of Brazil’s Bahia state. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

To keep pace with that growth, Brazil’s capacity to produce energy must increase by 50 percent over the next decade, government planners say — in line with a target set by rapidly growing China, and even faster than what is projected for Russia and India, two similarly sized, energy-hungry emerging economies.

In Brazil, wind will play a vital role: The aim by 2021 is to have Brazil rely on wind turbines for up to 10 percent of its generating capacity — nearly enough to power São Paulo, South America’s largest city.

It’s an expansion that planners believe makes perfect sense, allowing Brazil to avoid an energy crisis like the one in 2001 — when drought led to nationwide blackouts — while diversifying with a new source of power that is far cheaper and more efficient than it was just five years ago.

“Wind is the perfect complement for the hydro base that we have in Brazil,” said Mathias Becker, president of Renova Energia, a São Paulo wind energy company founded 12 years ago with $5,000 and now worth nearly $1.5 billion. “When it rains, we don’t have wind. When the wind blows, there is no rain.”


Workers prepare a new tower in a Renova Energia wind-turbine park. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Workers hoist tools up a new tower in the wind-turbine park. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Brazil’s big push on wind is not trouble-free. Transmission lines, devilishly difficult to build, have not kept up with wind-park construction. Brazil’s economy is barely expanding, and onerous government regulations slow investment.

Both the pitfalls of relying on wind on a big scale and its tantalizing possibilities are evident here in Caetite, a town with a frontier feel in the northeastern state of Bahia.

The land is parched and the semi-arid hills are rocky. What the homesteaders who struggle to make a living here always noticed was how the strong gusts could rip clay tiles off roofs and level fields of tomatoes.

“Here, it blows and it blows hard,” one farmer, Areldo Silva, 57, said as he surveyed his damaged fields on a recent day. “It knocks over plants all day long.”

But what was long viewed as a curse is now being harnessed as a steady source of power for a growing, 57-square-mile wind farm.

Run by Renova Energia, the High Wilderness Wind Complex is close to completion: a project of more than 400 wind turbines dotted across farms. Towering nearly 300 feet in the air, their gently turning rotors making them look like giant eggbeaters, the turbines form the biggest collection of windmills in Latin America.


Workers prepare wind blades to be hoisted onto a new tower in a Renova Energia wind-turbine park in the town of Caetite in Brazil’s Bahia state. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Wind still accounts for only about 3 percent of the energy-
producing capacity in Brazil, with its 200 million people. But it has reached that level at a blisteringly fast pace. Just four years ago, in 2009, the government held its first auction for companies vying to build wind farms.

Now, industry leaders talk of producing enough energy capacity each year to power 4 million Brazilian households.

“Why can Brazil be so big in wind?” said Elbia Melo, president of Brazil’s wind power trade group. “It’s because here the wind is so strong, spectacularly so. Brazil is also big, so we have many places with strong potential.”

The push to develop wind could add to the influence that Brazil wields at international climate talks, where the country is criticized for how deforestation affects the level of greenhouse gases. Industry and government officials say the growing number of wind farms in Brazil — 140 of them — shows how a country far from the epicenter of renewable energy development in Europe can quickly turn to wind and provide lessons to South America.

“I’ve been involved in Brazilian wind power for 22 years, but it’s in the last five years things have started to happen in dramatic fashion,” said Andrew Garrad, chairman of London-based GL Garrad Hassan, a renewable energy consulting firm. “Nothing much happened for a very long time. However now, this is one of the brightest areas for the wind energy market.”

Market spurred by drought

Guanambi is one of several small, arid towns where wind turbines are being erected in the windiest stretches of Bahia state. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Once derided as too expensive and too complex to ever be anything more than a niche in the world’s energy market, wind-
generated power
is now reaching a capacity of 300 gigawatts. That’s nearly three times the total electricity-producing potential of Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest economy.

In the United States, wind represents nearly half of all new electricity-generating capacity. Last year, the United States was wind energy’s top market. China projects its wind turbines will provide energy for 50 million people in two years. In Denmark, 30 percent of all electricity comes from the wind.

Renewable energy will provide nearly a third of the world’s electricity in just over 20 years, according to projections by the International Energy Agency. After hydropower, most of that power generation will come from the wind.

In Brazil, the road toward wind power began in the 1970s, when oil shortages led the government to ramp up oil production and develop the use of biofuel and hydropower. Wind’s rise came after the 2001 drought, which led to the rationing of electricity as river levels fell precipitously, hitting power generation hard.

Under President Dilma Rousseff’s center-left government, wind power has a strong backer, with the state’s big development bank providing sizable loans to the largest projects, including Renova Energia. “We are going to advance more and more, and see wind turbines spread across this country,” said Edison Lobão, the energy minister.

Though hydropower, which generates the vast majority of electricity, will remain vital, the government’s energy planners say that by 2025, dam building may be tapped out as a viable alternative.

Projects like Belo Monte — a gargantuan dam whose construction has generated relentless protests by environmentalists and Indians — appear to be a thing of the past. Instead, the Energy Ministry wants wind and biomass, which here means sugar-cane waste, to provide 30 percent of new electricity generation.

Perfect wind

Fast, steady wind is needed to rotate the huge blades of the 1.6-megawatt turbines being erected across the country. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Wind is everywhere.

But there are regions where the wind is simply stupendous for electricity generation: the Great Plains up through West Texas, Australia and New Zealand, frigid Patagonia, the North Sea, Mongolia and northern China.

Then there’s Brazil’s northern shoulder, Rio Grande do Sul state in the far south, and this bone-dry swath of Bahia state. The winds that whip here are the same ones that lore says took Portuguese explorers off course in 1500, leading Pedro Álvares Cabral to claim Brazil for the crown in Lisbon.

It is fast, steady wind — what’s needed to rotate the huge blades on the 1.6-megawatt turbines being erected across the country.

“It’s the only big country like this which has tremendous wind resources,” said Steve Sawyer, head of the Brussels-based Global Wind Energy Council, an industry-supported policy group. “It’s perfect, in very many ways.”

And perfect wind for power generation has its peculiarities. It shouldn’t come from various directions. It shouldn’t be turbulent. It shouldn’t be so strong as to wear down turbines. It needs to blow at 250 feet, up where the rotors are located.


The home of the Silva family is surrounded by wind turbines. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Florisvaldo Silva, 83, says the wind is so strong that it blows over the tomatoes, beanstalks and corn on his family’s farm. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

Wind energy companies also want a high capacity factor — how much a wind park actually produces compared to what could be produced operating at full capacity all the time. In Spain, the capacity factor hovers around 25 percent.

Brazil goes far beyond that.

To capture the wind, wind-generation turbines have become high-tech.

Three decades ago the blades reached 213 feet in diameter and had enough capacity to power a sports car. The biggest windmills today dwarf an Airbus A380, the diameter of the rotors topping 400 feet. They can generate power for an entire community.

Turbines can feature torque-control sensors, radar and anemometers for measuring wind speed. And on new turbines, the machine head that holds the rotor can pivot.

“In the first wind turbines, they could not turn the blades as these ones can. These can catch the wind constantly,” said Gerd Eriksen, a supervisor for Mammoet, a Dutch services giant that is installing turbines and towers here in Caetite. “They’re measuring the wind, measuring the production, electronically, and adjusting.”

Policy trails technology

People in the industry now talk in dreamy tones about building huge wind farms that could power whole countries. Or of a vast network of windmills in a country such as the United States that could provide a quarter of all energy needs.

“The technology is there,” said Laura Williamson of Ren21, a Paris-based policy group on renewable energy. “But the policy framework has not caught up with the technology.”

A hindrance in Brazil has been government regulations, which require machinery for the industry to be made in Brazilian plants.

So far, the big makers of windmill components have been complying. Here in Bahia, companies from Brazil, Spain and France have come to build turbines, towers, and other components, among them Alstom, the French power generation and engineering giant. It opened a plant in 2011 outside Salvador, Bahia’s capital.

“We’ve made the decision to invest heavily,” said Marcos Costa, president of Alstom in Brazil.


Maria Silva and her husband's family agreed to be paid $250 a month to allow Renova Energia to place wind turbines on their 46-acre land. (Lianne Milton/For The Washington Post)

But Sawyer, of the Global Wind Energy Council, said he worries about what could happen if the economy, already sluggish, grinds to a halt. He said the government’s requirement that a percentage of parts be made in Brazil could present “potentially dangerous anti-competitive situations.”

Then there is the challenge of ensuring that transmission lines keep up with the construction of wind farms.

Energy companies, including Renova here in Caetite, have been completing wind parks on time, but with the state has failed to provide the infrastructure to get the power to cities. That has led to televised news reports featuring vast nonfunctioning wind farms, the blades on rotors gently rocking in the breeze.

“It was the worst possible thing for the government’s image,” Mauricio Tolmasquim, who heads the state’s energy planning agency, told the renewable energy publication, Recharge.

In all future auctions, the developer must provide the transmission lines — a policy that saddles energy companies with a costly challenge.

“There is a real risk that if they don’t get that distribution in place, backed by real policies, then they’re going to face some serious problems,” said Williamson of Ren21.

Windfall for a farmer

Here outside of Caetite, the winds were the problem on a recent day.

Gusts were blowing in at over 40 mph, which made it dangerous to hoist turbines and blades for installation. “It’s perfect for power generation,” said Rodrigo Bota, the supervising engineer. “It’s not for mounting rotors.”

The power of these winds, which drew wind experts with their sensors in the 1990s, were of course all too well-known to farmers, among them Areldo Silva.

Walking through his fields, Silva talked of how the wind is so strong that it blows over his tomatoes, beanstalks and corn.

“There’s no way to avoid this — it’s a thing of nature,” he said.

Silva still tries to make a go of it on his 46-acre farm.

He grows cactus, which is mulched into a near-liquid form and given to his 17 cows, animals that would otherwise go thirsty because of the lack of rain. He also tries to shield some of the plots on his farm from the wind by growing long, grassy stalks called capim.

It’s exasperating, he said.

So Silva said he was happy when Renova Energia came to him with a multi-year contract that pays $250 a month for him to allow the company to build a wind turbine on his land.

And now it’s there, towering over his crops, its blades softly turning in the breeze.

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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