By Verónica Firme
"This country closed 2014 with 55 percent of renewable energies in its global matrix, when the world average is just 12 percent," said the president of the National System of Response to Climate Change, Ramón Méndez, during a meeting on the sector .
In addition, 94 percent of electricity generation came from renewable sources, he said, in a country that is only responsible for 0.06 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming.
The energy transformation began during the previous government of the current president, Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010), although the country did not start from scratch in renewable sources, explained in an interview with IPS the physicist Gonzalo Abal, from the Solar Energy Laboratory of the University of the Republic of Uruguay.
Uruguay already had a strong renewable component, thanks to the hydroelectric source, but this is a vulnerable alternative, as it is subject to climatic fluctuations.
Traditionally, the country depended on four old hydroelectric plants, three on the Negro River, built between the 30s and 70s, and one more on the Uruguay River, shared with Argentina, from the 70s.
In addition, two old fuel-oil thermal plants have operated as backup when hydroelectric generation was reduced or stopped due to lack of water, the last time in 2004.
This country of the American Southern Cone, with 3.3 million people, has fully exploited the hydroelectric source, at least the one with great potential, and that is why it began to bet on the wind source and then biomass, which are the two where most It has advanced, according to data provided by specialists and documents consulted.
The energy transformation required a legal framework, which included the authorization of customers connected to the low voltage grid to generate electricity from renewable sources - wind, solar, biomass or mini-hydro - with a power of no more than 150 kilowatts.
Several initiatives were also approved, such as the Energy Policy 2005-2030, and the National Energy Efficiency Plan 2015-2024, approved on August 3.
The Plan aims to reduce energy consumption in all sectors, but particularly in the residential and transport sectors, which will be responsible for 75 percent of the total accumulated decrease by 2024.
In addition, the Investment Promotion Law was modified to encourage projects to include at least five percent of investment in renewable energy, in exchange for the tax reduction, through a cleaner production indicator.
Uruguay has 16 wind farms of medium and great potential, like this one in the northern department of Tacuarembó. The country already has an installed wind power capacity of 670 megawatts and a similar amount under construction, with which 30 percent of its electricity demand will be supplied by the force of the wind by the end of 2016. Credit: Ana Libisch / IPS
The state National Administration of Electric Power Plants and Transmission (UTE) is responsible for the generation, transmission, distribution and commercialization of electrical energy for 1.2 million customers distributed in the 176,215 square kilometers of the Uruguayan territory.
The state-owned company monopolizes energy distribution, but not generation, in which the private sector participates, which made it difficult to add the area to the objectives of the energy strategy.
At the end of 2014, Uruguay had a total installed power of 3,719 megawatts, including generators connected to the National Interconnected System and other autonomous and self-produced ones, according to data from the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mining.
The large pulp mills are generating their own energy from biomass and selling its surplus to the UTE. The problem with this source is that when it burns it releases CO2, one of the main greenhouse gases.
And while the technology exists to make emissions totally clean, in Uruguay the situation is still mixed. "There are very new facilities that work very cleanly and there are old and obsolete facilities that burn biomass with all the smoke it generates," explained Gonzalo Abal.
The problem with wind and solar energy is that they are not programmable. "It is a problem in the electricity grid, which is a zero-sum system: the energy generated at a given moment has to be equal to the energy consumed at that moment," and it must be supplemented with a source that can be schedule as the hydroelectric plant is, as long as there is no drought, he added.
The power was composed of 1,538 megawatts of hydraulic origin, 1,696 thermal megawatts (fossil fuels and biomass), 481 megawatts of wind origin and four megawatts of photovoltaic solar generators, details the National Energy Balance of 2014.
Considering the installed power by source, 66 percent corresponded to renewable energy (hydro, biomass, wind and solar), while the remaining 34 percent constituted non-renewable energy (diesel, fuel oil and natural gas).
In the economy, there was a structural change in the energy consumption matrix as of 2008, which remained the same for the last seven years. The industrial sector is the one that consumes the most (39 percent), followed by transportation (29 percent), residential (19 percent), commerce and services (eight percent) and lastly agriculture, fishing and mining ( five percent).
Between 2007 and 2014, the industry displaced transportation to second place and produced an increase in biomass consumption. Cellulose pulp companies were decisive in this, because thanks to this source they became more than 90 percent self-sufficient, within the transformation started in 2005.
In this country, “the important change occurred in wind power; this is where changes were necessary and challenges were faced, ”specialist Gerardo Honty, from the Latin American Center for Social Ecology, told IPS.
Wind power is in full swing and "we are close to one gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) of installed capacity, we are on schedule as planned," said Abal in turn.
As for photovoltaic solar energy, "we have a 50 megawatt plant already operational, there are 100 hectares of solar panels, and a second 50 megawatt plant with European capital began to be deployed," explained this academic.
"The other plants, some 15, are smaller, on the order of one to five megawatts, and are distributed in the north of the country," added Abal.
Connection with neighbors
Uruguay diversifies the basket of energy sources, but it can also “enlarge the size of the geographic network, if you interconnect with Argentina and southern Brazil, the probability of having an atmospheric event that will leave you without wind generation in that entire area , in all the humid pampas, it is very low ”, explained the physicist.
The National Interconnected System has interconnections with Argentina (2,000 megawatts) and with Brazil (70 megawatts and in expansion to 500 megawatts), the latter delayed due to the fact that the generation has different frequencies in each network, and a conversion system must be established to overcome the problem.
In Uruguay, "the problem is not the electricity sector but the combustion engines that cannot be supplied with the renewable (sources) mentioned," Honty pointed out.
The future challenge is in transport and especially in the public.
The Municipality of Montevideo is evaluating the alternative of autonomous electric vehicles for its energy efficiency, because it ensures zero polluting emissions and reduces noise pollution to a minimum, said economist Gonzalo Márquez, from the Department of Mobility, in a forum on energy.
But there is still no planned schedule, he told IPS, because there are difficulties to be solved such as the costs of the unit, maintenance, battery autonomy and the subsidy for public transport, "a hidden cost borne by society." .
Uruguay is betting that by the end of the transformation in the energy sector, polluting emissions will be between 20 and 40 times lower than the world average, projected Méndez, the head of government for the response to climate change.
In addition, this country aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. That means that "we are proposing for that year that what we capture from CO2 (carbon dioxide) is greater than what we emit throughout our economy," he stressed.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez