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Argentina’s Breezy Solution to Fossil Fuels

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

In the coastal city of Rio Gallegos, Argentina, people notoriously tie ropes to buildings to prevent them from blowing over. The Westerlies known as the Roaring 40s (which means 40-50 degrees south of the equator) billow across the Atlantic at 26 knots/day, sometimes even reaching 53 knots in the winter[1].

Argentina, Santa Cruz, Sustainable Development, Windmills,  Wind energy, Solar power, Turbines

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

In perspective, the wind speeds in California's wind farms are roughly half of that. The wide coastal plains to the south of the city thus provide an ideal area of approx.10,000 acres[2] for a wind turbine farm with a combined capacity of 250 MW generated from around 80 turbines, each with a 3MW capacity[3].

The state of Santa Cruz is sparsely inhabited and has low levels of agricultural productivity, making the land socially and economically viable for construction with minimum displacement of the local Tehuelches[4]. Due to the recent laying of High Voltage Power Lines in nearby Puerto Madryn[5], the regional grid has also been connected to the main grid enabling the export of electricity of up to 500MW(proposed to be expanded to 4800 MW, to meet 20% of Argentinian requirements). Proximity to Chile's national grid also enables foreign earnings[6].

By providing large-scale manual employment to the rural poor, the project would help reverse the aftermath of the pandemic, which sent Santa Cruz unemployment rates skyrocketing to 15%[7]. After a few years, residents will be able to avail electricity at highly affordable prices(approx. 2 cents/kWh)[8] which would give an impetus to the gold and chemical industry in the region[9]. Improvements in local health(like cancer rates, caused by impoverished water resources[10]), due to a shift from polluting fossil fuels would be seen. This would bring equitable development to one of the poorest districts in the state.[11]

The indigenous Tehuelche people[13] who are the residents of the region are the most important stakeholders of this project. They must be consulted and made aware of the benefits of wind energy. Those in proximity to the site need to be offered sufficient relocation and 'good neighbour' compensations[14] as per international standards. This is followed by the Integración Energética Sociedad Anónima, the state-owned Argentinian electricity production company who will be financing this project[12].

The project must be approved and sanctioned by the Argentinian and Santa Cruz State governments. Danish turbine company Vestas, which is locally producing the turbines in nearby Buenos Aires, is an integral partner[15]. Qualified local workers, who can be included into Wind Energy production in construction, installation, operation and supervision areas are required. Salaries are one half of international ones for qualified workers as per PPP[16]. Local careers and technician training are already available.

The Argentinian Grid operators are also relevant in order to establish the connection to the nearby High Voltage Power Lines[17]. The Environment ministry must also approve the project, taking into account considerations like land preservation, birdlife and tree density in the area, amongst others.

Wind energy generation in Argentina faces the problem of the unavailability of 2-3 MW turbines[18], as local turbines typically operate at a lower output of 1.5-2MW. This can be resolved by entering into technological contracts with sustainable international partners, like Danish company Vestas which is helping make 'Made-In-Argentina' turbines. “On high wind sites, turbines like the V105-3.45 MW™, V112-3.45 MW® and V117-3.45 MW®, prove to be optimal choices.

A mix of the three variants can be employed to maximise production while fully utilizing land constraints. Since these models have similar electrical properties, sound emissions and nacelle design, it is easy to combine turbines from the 4 MW platform to maximise production on heavily constrained sites”-Vestas[19].

Wind turbines have historically been associated with high upfront costs. This can be solved by working with the World Bank’s Sustainable Energy Financing Program[20] which provides incentive packages including low cost debt, monetary aid and knowledge support to institutions. The electricity generated must also be able to compete with the low rates offered by fossil fuels. This can be solved by utilising the Argentinian government's subsidies which cover roughly 50% of electricity rates in the initial years(to cover upfront costs).[21] The local quota system, whereby 20% of electricity on the grid is to be reserved for REMs(Renewable Energy Markets[22]) also offers competitive protection.

The rich Patagonian biodiversity ranges from lush grasslands, endangered Guanacos and Rheas, to Patagonian cypress trees and populated cattle.[23] Wind farms require a large area (50 acres/MW) which could result in deforestation as well as dislocation of endangered species. This can be minimized by practicing selective logging in order to prevent destruction of species, ensuring survival of parent trees for regrowth, and replantation drives in southward areas[24].

Animal hotspots, grazing grounds and water troughs adjacent to the project should be avoided and not infringed upon, in accordance with environmental laws. Native berries species and fallen trees should be preserved and replanted to minimize impact. The use of heavy machinery should be minimized to not affect smaller species like rabbits while felling trees[25].

Birdlife and bat species are often an important concern for windmills as they often get caught in the blades. Curtailment measures such as shutdown algorithms or turbine speed reduction during periods of high bat activity are the most effective ways to avoid bat fatalities[25]. The same can be done during the migratory seasons of local birds like the Sandy Gallito. Since these birds typically migrate during the winter months, turbines can be programmed to reduce speeds by about 50% during particularly busy days, with the use of AI migratory pattern trackers.[26]

In conclusion, while a push towards sustainable energy in Santa Cruz carries enormous potential, the viability of such a project needs to be assessed economically, culturally and environmentally. This should be done while taking into account all major stakeholders and interest groups, to bring holistic development to the lives of several Argentinians.





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