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.
The company went out of business in 1998, but the German government agreed to help finance the installation of two new windmills in 2001. Two years later, the town decided to stake its future on the wind, announcing that it would spend $500,000 to partly fund the construction of the hydrogen production plant.
"It was a very democratic decision," said Juan Carlos Bolcich, president of the Argentine Hydrogen Association and the director of the facility. "At town council meetings, the population said, 'What's going to happen when our natural gas is depleted?' "
Despite predictions that hydrogen could be a feasible replacement for petroleum, significant hurdles remain. The technology to generate hydrogen is still fairly expensive, and creating a method to transport it as well as building networks of hydrogen filling stations would add significantly to the costs.
Still, interest in hydrogen and wind power has been growing. Last year, the U.S. government announced $350 million in grants for fuel-cell and hydrogen research, and it plans to create a small network of hydrogen filling stations in association with private energy companies. The Energy Department announced hopes of generating 5 percent of all electricity from the wind by 2020.
"What we're doing is experimental, and it will allow us to help test equipment that will be used all over the world," Bolcich said. "We'll be looking to cooperate with small industries to help power their projects [and] we'll be looking for ways to transport the energy to the world."
Not everyone in Pico Truncado is convinced that the wind is going to sweep gales of money into town, but many residents say it's worth trying to snag whatever benefit they can. The political winds, they pointed out, seem to be at their backs. The former mayor of Pico Truncado, Sergio Acevedo, is governor of their province, Santa Cruz, while a former governor, Nestor Kirchner, is the country's president.
"Pico Truncado has an elevated position because of that, and the energy industry infrastructure is already here," said Jaime Machucha, who runs several filling stations in the area. "In a certain way, it's counterproductive for me to support projects like these. But I do think it's good for our future, even though I think it's a long way off."
About 13 miles from Machucha's gas station sits the village of Koluel Kaike, where 200 residents live in small cinderblock homes. The United Nations has picked this spot as one of five in the world -- others include villages in Libya, China, Australia and Turkey -- for a pilot program that would gradually convert the entire village to alternative energy sources.
Horacio Miguel, a Pico Truncado resident who serves as the commissioner of Koluel Kaike, said he believed the United Nations chose the site because of the existing hydrogen plant and the permanent supply of wind. In the next six years, he said, he and consulting experts will begin to implement the conversions that they hope will eventually power all the homes, businesses and automobiles in Koluel Kaike.
"Little by little, we will make the change," Miguel said. "The ultimate goal is that this won't be a town you just pass by, that people can come here to see something they've never seen before."
But for most Patagonians, a day when the wind becomes something other than a nuisance that leaves them with dusty hair and dry throats is too remote to imagine.
Alexe Jimenez, 10, spent a recent afternoon dribbling a soccer ball through the streets of Pico Truncado, a dog chasing his heels. He's part of the generation that officials say could one day benefit the most from the hydrogen projects. But for now, Alexe is far more concerned about his badly lopsided soccer ball.
He said that one day, when he was kicking his ball, the wind caught it, launching it onto the highway, where a truck ran it over.
"I don't like the wind," the boy declared.