December 2012

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Uruguay is a small country (at least for South American standards) but it is intentioned to become a giant in wind power, somehow like Denmark in Europe.

The country has an ambitious plan of reaching 1,2GW of installed wind power in the next 3 years: considering that present generation capacity is about 2,6GW the figure appears even bigger.

Currently, only 2 wind farms are installed and operational, Sierra de los Caracoles and Kentilux (43MW).

Right now the Uruguayan energy mix is based mainly on a hydro plant shared with Argentina and several gas turbines.  Due to the strong economic growth experienced in the last years (GDP is growing at a steady rate around 3.5%), the country has an urgent need for more installed capacity.

Another very solid reason to increase the installed capacity is to sell energy to the neighbors. The line to Argentina can handle 200MW and the connection to Brazil 70MW (although there is a project to improve this connection in the next years up to 500 MW).

Several developers are active in the market: among the biggest players the argentinians Impsa and Fingano, together with Teyma (Abengoa group) and the local Ortegui Group, plus many other competitor asking for prices per MWh that are dropping quickly.

I’ve been visiting the country for a wind farm we are building there and my impression is that the 1,2GW target in such a short time is unrealistic for several reasons.

First of all, the size of the local companies: the biggest have about 2-3000 employees, a respectable number for a 3 million inhabitant country, but inadequate for the potential workload (if several wind farms are built together, we can easily saturate the concrete producing capacity and absorb a considerable percentage of the skilled workers).

Secondly, there are huge logistic problems: the harbor is not prepared to handle the amount of blades, tower section and nacelles needed for all the projects in the pipeline, not to talk about the special transport needed and the cranes for installation.

Then, there are some less obvious problems: UTE, the almighty local utility, take it’s time to analyze each problem and to answer technical questions. This too can lead to delays uneasy to forecast. And they must solve connection issues as well, because grid connection will not be easy.

After, there is a somehow peculiar local environmental regulation setting the minimum distance from a wind turbine to a property line from 170 to 300 meters (and an equivalent limitation asking for a buffer of 3000 meters to the nearest home): this can complicate the layout, affecting negatively the power output and complicating the project without clear benefits.

But looking at the brightest side of life, there are several positive aspects: the legal framework is stable, economy is growing with inflation under control, the local companies looks prepared and from a civil work point of view it’s an easy country, flat with an uncomplicated geology.

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Offshore is one of the fastest growing sectors in the renewable energy business in Europe. In 2010 more than 300 new turbines have been installed, reaching a total of more than 3000 MW connected to the grid.

The number is not huge, but the offshore agenda is quite busy: more than 20.000 MW are expected to be installed at the end of 2015. The majority of these projects will be in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

On a worldwide basis, Europe is accumulating more than 96% of all the installed capacity, with Great Britain as the biggest player right now, followed by Denmark and Netherlands.

The interest for offshore development has several reasons: bigger wind potential (over 4.000 full load hours vs. 2.000 full load hours onshore), bigger wind turbines (>3MW, up to 7MW) and wind farms (from 50 to 1000 MW of installed capacity, while the average onshore wind farm is around 50 MW).

The drawback is the enormous investment needed: billions of euros, due to the rough marine conditions where everything is more expensive: wind turbines, cables, substation, and of course foundations.

Several foundation types are available for wind energy offshore towers:  gravity-type, monopile, jacket-pile, tripod and suction caissons.

The type of foundation used depends mainly on water depth and sea bed conditions: there is no “standard” concrete foundation as in the onshore wind farms. The solution used more often is the monopile.

Gravity foundations are used preferably in waters with a maximum depth around 30 meters, are made of precast concrete and are ballasted with sand, gravel or stones.

Monopile foundations are used in water with a maximum depth around 25 meters.

They are made of steel, and they are driven into the seabed for about 30 meters with a hammer (similar to the one used to build offshore platforms)

Tripod is used in deeper waters (up to 35 meters). It’s made of different pieces welded together and it’s fixed to the ground with three steel piles.

 Jacket if used in deep waters (more than 40 meters). It is made of steel beams welded together, weighting more than 500 tons.

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