And the second position goes to … Uruguay

The first place on the list of the 15 countries with the largest share of solar and wind is occupied by Denmark, which is not really a surprise to me. What is a surprise is the second position, occupied by Uruguay with 44% of its electricity generated by solar and wind. When it comes to solar and wind, I heard a lot about for example Denmark, Germany and (South) Australia, but not yet about Uruguay.

That got me somewhat curious, wondering what the story of Uruguay is in order to cope with such a large share of intermittent power sources. I already wrote about the strategies of for example Denmark (having two big neighbors with a lot of dispatchable hydropower to balance out the intermittency on the Danish grid) and Germany (exporting its surplus to the neighboring countries at low to negative prices). Now what is the strategy of Uruguay?

First things first. I know Uruguay is a country somewhere in South America, but that is about it. I wouldn’t be able to point it out on a map, so let’s start there. Uruguay is a relatively small country on the East coast of South America. I colored it in red on this map and also named its two (big) neighbors: Brazil to the North-East and Argentina to the South-West.

Uruguay on a South America map

Uruguay has an area of roughly 175,000 km2 and a population of 3.5 million. Compared to Belgium, its area is more than 5 times larger, yet it has only one third of the population. Electricity demand will therefor probably much lower. That could explain the absence of an entry for solar and wind generation in the BP dataset (it was listed under “Other South America”). That tells me that although its share of solar and wind in electricity production is high, the absolute quantity of electricity that it produces from solar and wind might be rather small.

Anyway, this post is not about the absolute quantity of electricity that gets produced, but about Uruguay’s strategy to handle its large share of solar and wind. Intermittent power sources in Uruguay apparently grew very fast: from virtually zero in 2013 to 44% in 2020. This graph coming from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) website illustrates best this rapid growth:

Uruguay power generation mix 2000-2018

The growth is predominantly from wind, the share of solar is rather minimal (the tiny red dots on the top of the wind curve). The graph is only until 2018 and although wind could generate up to 40% in some months, the average share in 2018 was around 30%. Culminating to 44% in 2020.

Luckily, the article also explains how Uruguay manages to handle its large share of electricity from intermittent power sources:

  • It has cross-border interconnections with Argentina and Brazil.
    That reminds me of the strategy of Denmark. It also has a large share of wind power and it has good interconnections with its big neighbors Norway and Sweden, which just like Brazil and Argentina, have loads of hydropower at their disposal, therefor they can provide the dispatchable power needed to balance the large share of wind power on the grid of their small neighbor.
  • In addition, Uruguay also has a large share of hydropower itself.
    It is indeed clear from the graph that a lot of electricity produced in Uruguay is hydropower. This was even more pronounced in the past with a share of 80+% of total generation at times.

Wind (and solar) make sense in such a case, even more than Denmark. Uruguay naturally has huge amounts of a flexible (and probably cheap) power source, so balancing the intermittency of wind (and solar) is not that much of a issue. More, the produced electricity from wind can save on hydropower that could be used in periods of droughts or for filling in higher demand.

Although wind power makes sense in Uruguay, I have to disagree with the last sentence of the IEEFA article (my emphasis):

That puts the country in second place in a global ranking of national wind and solar power market share, behind Denmark, and offers a profoundly instructive example that can be applied elsewhere and in any number of other countries.

Uruguay has the advantage of having plentyful low-emission dispatchable power to balance out intermittency and interconnections with two big neighbors. This is not necessarily the case in other countries. For example my country, Belgium, doesn’t have such resources. We have some pumped storage in Coo which originally was built to absorb overproduction of nuclear power at night in order to fill in at peak demand. This pumped storage only has as small capacity of 1,164 MW and takes about 5 hours for the reservoirs to empty. Meaning that we will need other (mostly fossil fueled) capacity to balance out intermittency.

But then, doesn’t Belgium have big(ger) neighbors like France, Germany and the Netherlands? Well yes, and some of our politicians had the prospect of importing “cheap” electricity from Germany. Although it is true that Germany at times exports electricity at a cheap rate or even at negative prices, this is mostly when there is a lot of sun and wind. The problem is that we are also in the process of transitioning to solar and wind. Therefor, when we have the most need for electricity import (not much solar and/or wind), Germany will not have much for export. When we don’t have a need for import (lots of solar and/or wind), Germany will want to export. So, Germany will not be much of a help in solving our intermittency.

The same thing for the Netherlands. They are also in the process of transitioning to solar and wind, so will encounter the exact same problems as we do. If we have a surplus, they will too. If we have a shortage, they will too.

France currently has a large share of nuclear power and they saved us several times before, but they will not only have to intervene for us, but also for Germany and the Netherlands. If they also start to transition to solar and wind, then that ability will diminish.

Concluding, I think wind power makes sense in Uruguay. They naturally have a huge source of dispatchable power at their disposal to balance out the intermittency, therefor saving some of their own resources in the process, but whether this can be applied to other countries is different question. If those countries have plentiful dispatchable power sources available and/or big neighbors that have such resources, then this is perfectly possible. However, if those countries don’t have much dispatchable power available and are transitioning to the same intermittent power sources as their neighbors, then the Uruguay example becomes pretty difficult to apply.


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