Argentine Town Hopes to Transform Wind Into Windfall

Oscar Fanesi is the public works director for Pico Truncado, located in the perfect position to catch the eastbound winds that pour over the Andes.
Oscar Fanesi is the public works director for Pico Truncado, located in the perfect position to catch the eastbound winds that pour over the Andes. (Photos By Monte Reel -- The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 15, 2005

PICO TRUNCADO, Argentina -- For the past 36 years, the eight steps from Alberto Ibanez's barber chair to the sidewalk have marked the precise distance between the designs of man and the whims of nature.

"Even if you put grease in your hair, the wind still messes it up," Ibanez said. "And the wind is very dry, so there's also a lot of static electricity. Usually, people just get their hair cut short."

Like the airborne dust that collects in the seams of their clothes, such concessions are ingrained in the lives of every inhabitant of this Patagonian town of 15,000, which sprang up 90 years ago to service a now-abandoned railroad line. But today, Pico Truncado is trying to turn its wind into a windfall.

The town gets more than half of its electricity from four windmills, two of which began operating three weeks ago. Last month, a small village nearby was designated as one of five places in the world that would be powered solely by alternative fuels as part of a U.N. pilot project. And in June, Pico Truncado plans a grand opening for the first wind-powered hydrogen production plant in Latin America.

With some experts predicting that hydrogen fuel produced at wind-powered electrical facilities could eventually overtake oil as the main source of the world's energy, residents and officials hope this desolate, half-forgotten region of southern Argentina could become the Middle East of the future.

"Why not?" said Mario Salomon, a 62-year-old auto mechanic. "We lack water, we lack money, but we have never lacked wind. We have plenty to spare."

The town has already begun to sense the potential benefits from its invisible resource. This year, an Argentine oil company announced it was launching feasibility studies for an internationally financed, $19 billion wind-powered facility here that would export hydrogen around the world.

"One day, I watched 15 trucks come into town to bring the materials for the new plant," said Omar Pardo, who works at a service station on the road into the remote Pico Truncado, which is surrounded by wide, stony lands dotted with slowly bobbing oil wells. "Hopefully we'll see the fruits of all this someday."

On Wednesday, the blades of Pico Truncado's windmills spun steadily in a 42 mile-per-hour wind while workers put the finishing touches on the new hydrogen plant nearby. The shredded remains of a pale blue-and-white-striped Argentine flag whipped against a pole. A chunk of dry earth flew from a workman's shovel, burst into a cloud and quickly dissipated to dust in the wind.

Pico Truncado is perched on the eastern edge of Patagonia's stubbled plains, about 950 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, the capital. Wide stretches of land are empty except for roaming herds of guanacos, relatives of the llama.

The town is in the perfect position to catch the eastbound winds that consistently pour over the Andes and build to speeds of 40 to 70 miles an hour. Thousands of young trees planted by the city -- mostly spindly elms and willows -- lean markedly toward the east. On one edge of town, a collection of large metal sculptures have been designed to clang and whistle when the wind blows.

The area's main industry is oil and natural gas drilling, but people seem keenly aware that those resources might not last forever. The first windmills were installed in the 1990s by a German company; workers had to wait more than a week for the wind to die down enough to attach the blades.

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