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Solving the Uruguay mystery

According to Wikipedia, in 2013, Uruguay had 10MW of wind power capacity out of a total electricity generating capacity of 2337MW. That's 0.4%. Fully 1538MW or 66% was hydro. It suggests wind as a percentage of generating capacity would hit 30% by 2016.

Six months ago, Bloomberg reported that wind capacity was due to hit 800MW this year.

But today, according Jonathan Watts in the Guardian, Uruguay has made a "dramatic shift to nearly 95% electricity from clean energy". The picture at the top of the article is, of course, of a wind turbine and we learn that:

Uruguay gets 94.5% of its electricity from renewables. In addition to old hydropower plants, a hefty investment in wind, biomass and solar in recent years has raised the share of these sources in the total energy mix to 55%, compared with a global average of 12%, and about 20% in Europe.

What a transformation they have wrought in the last 12 months!

I struggled to work out what has happened here - I wondered whether this it was just the environment journalist's traditional trick of using capacity figures but talking about generation (as favoured by Roger Harrabin). But even that ddidn't seem as if it would be big enough.

The answer turned up in the Uruguayan National Energy Balance document (in Spanish), which contained this graph:

If you add up all but the red slice (Eolica, in orange, is wind power; the others should be decipherable), you seem to get pretty much the correct figure.

And next door to this graph was the one that explains this dramatic transformation in the energy landscape in Uruguay. Yes folks, it had rained a lot, so they were able to replace thermal generation with extra hydro.

God, the journalists at the Guardian are shameless.

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Reader Comments (41)

They are not without shame, they are just providing the stories they are paid to provide, to a readership that likes to read stories. It is an excellent demonstration of the corrupt and unhealthy side of capitalism, that the Grauniad claims to despise.

Dec 3, 2015 at 11:07 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

golf charlie

if it was capitalism the Guardian would be long gone .... as it stands the pot has another 20+ years to run.... they like to boast "comment is free" - but "facts are sacred" seems to have passed by the present crop of eco- journalists without being noticed.

I'd bet most of them aren't even aware of this and those that are view it as quaint.

Dec 3, 2015 at 11:42 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Rains a lot in the UK, but try suggesting building more hydro projects and the projections of ecological doom will be resounding!

Sooner or later we must realise that the higher we move up the power density ladder the ability to limit our impact on our environment increases

Dec 3, 2015 at 11:47 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

the River Plate might contribute hydro but I don't think there are many dams

Dec 4, 2015 at 12:01 AM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

tomo, does the Scott Trust still own all those fossil fuel shares tucked away in a flood proof basement of a Cayman Island Bank? It is good to know that they protect their commercial investments from the UK taxman, and close scrutiny from their readers. Otherwise they might be accused of hypocrisy, double standards, tax avoidance etc.

Dec 4, 2015 at 12:02 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

So? A warmer world means more rain. Compare that to an ice age when the climate is dry because a huge amount of water is frozen on the ground.

Dec 4, 2015 at 12:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterAila

Where I live in Washington State, US, hydro, which we have a lot of, is not considered a renewable.

Dec 4, 2015 at 12:51 AM | Unregistered Commenterdp

Aila, quite right, mankind does better in warmer climates than colder ones. Imagine how great it would be if we did have some proper global warming.

Dec 4, 2015 at 12:53 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Nice find.

I think it is Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit that warns about keeping your eyes on the pea under the shell. For example, in many US States hydo gets shunted to the side of the table, as stated here:

"That’s why hydropower doesn’t count toward utilities’ renewable energy mandates in most states—that, and the fact that there is already so much hydro out there. More than 30 states have renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require utilities to generate a percentage of their power from renewable sources. Counting all hydropower would significantly lessen the impact of these standards, particularly in states where hydropower already provides a substantial amount of electricity."

Other countries use other logic, so one always needs to check whether the pea is still under the shell, or has it been "disappeared."

Dec 4, 2015 at 1:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Hultquist

Shameless they certainly are. But I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, as at the BBC, the Guardian journalist(s) in question are not even competent enough to construct these sort of lies for themselves. They probably got it from Bloomberg or another source.

Dec 4, 2015 at 1:58 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Reminds me of British Columbia, Canada, reported in Wikipedia-

"As of 2014, 97 percent of BC Hydro's electricity generation comes from clean or renewable sources..."

The vast majority of this is large hydroelectric dams*.

*known to be a non-renewable energy source by the state of California.

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:45 AM | Unregistered Commenterchris y

"the River Plate might contribute hydro but I don't think there are many dams"

there are major rivers which feed into the Plate and have multiple dams. In any case the Plate is more of an estuary than a river. Wikipedia is your friend.

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterEli Rabett

More interestingly it looks like biomass and wind are significantly cutting into fossil fuel electricity generation. In 2014 biomass and wind were eyeball 3K GWh. Fossil fuel even in the dry years was not more than 4K at it's peak, so yes, Uruguay is well on its way to zeroing out fossil fuel for electricity generation.

Dec 4, 2015 at 4:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterEli Rabett

Guardian Readers are just a thick as the proverbial "Sun Readers" of the old Jasper Carrott jokes. They'll believe anything that confirms their existing prejudices. 386 favourited the top comments

In one decade a developing country accomplished what we are unable to do even in the next 50 as our politicians have been so busy talking through their bum holes
They don't favourite others which say ..Europe cannot imitate the Switzerland of South America a low population country which sits on a lot of hydro, and has plenty of biomass available.
I trace the article back to interviews the greenish energy minister has given first translated into English on Nov 16th like here
94% renewables : becomes "nearly 95%" in the Guardian
Thanks to hydropower, a significant proportion of Uruguay’s energy already came from renewables...
Traditionally, the country depended on four old hydroelectric dams, three of which were built on the Negro River between the 1930s and the 1970s. The fourth is on the Uruguay River, shared with neighbouring Argentina, and was built in the 1970s.In addition, two ancient thermal plants powered by fuel oil have served as a back-up when the hydropower supply drops or collapses due to water shortages. The last time this happened was in 2004.
(BTW what happens in other countries is that fuel suppliers pay bribes to electricity corp people to switch off the hydro and use more fuel)(I notice journalists not only don't understand the difference between CAPACITY and DELIVERY they often mixup MW and MWh)
total installed capacity of 3,719 MW..1,696 MW of thermal energy (from fossil fuels and biomass), 1,538 MW of hydropower, 481 MW of wind power

.. interconnections with Argentina (2,000 MW) and with Brazil (500MW being built)

Pulp mills played a decisive role in that, because thanks to biomass they became 90 percent self-sufficient in energy,
“and we are nearing one gigawatt (1,000 MW) of installed capacity,”
Uruguay used to get gas cheap from Argentina, but for last 10 years mostly Argentina has no spare gas.
Like the UK there is an illusion in the PERCENTAGE growth of renewables, cos reliables don't get built like they should. A big project is way behind schedule a LNG terminal which will also feed into a new 500MW Combined Cycle power plant next to the existing one at El Tigre.

Dec 4, 2015 at 5:04 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Your Eminence, indulge me.

"God the journalists at the Guardian are shameless." deifies the pretenders at the Fourth Estate.
I'd rather we go with,

"God, the journalists at the Guardian are shameless."


Dec 4, 2015 at 6:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterManfred

In summary the Guardian writer seems to put 1+1 to get 3
#1 Yep, wind CAPACITY has shot up
#2 'Hey wow Uruguay gets of 94% of DELIVERED electricity' from renewables
So not understanding the difference between power capacity and power delivery he jumps to the conclusion that 'Hey wow Uruguay is surging ahead with renewables.
..Unaware that Uruaguay has traditionally got almost all electricity from hydro and the gov has made progress with biomass, so some factory own power stations now use waste pulp material etc. So a 94% delivered fig is possible
..But also if it doesn't rain you have to turn on the gas power
..And new gas power will be available within a year which can easily match the avg output of all wind .

Dec 4, 2015 at 6:52 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Looks like the rain that was missing in Sao Paulo and so worried Entropic Man earlier in the year moved a few hundred miles to the south.

Dec 4, 2015 at 8:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

@Green Sand: it's geography that prevents us building much more Hydro, not predictions of eco-doom. We simply don't have enough large mountains.

Dec 4, 2015 at 8:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Duffin

Were I an Uruguayan who would I rather be representative, James Hansen or Norman Borlaug? Don't know much about geography. Don't know much biology. What I do know I do know now. What I will know I don't know how.

Dec 4, 2015 at 8:18 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Our Professorial Lagamorph is looking at the baseplate capacity, rather than the actual amount of electricity these thingsproduce.

Dec 4, 2015 at 8:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

The insoluble problem with biomass is that although it may be renewable there is no way it can be sustainable. Compare the growing time with the burning time - on any large scale, quickly the rapacious maw of the furnace will not have enough to eat.

Dec 4, 2015 at 9:08 AM | Registered Commenterdavidchappell

Well if there are no hills for hydro we must build these hills first :)

Dec 4, 2015 at 9:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG


...he insoluble problem with biomass is that although it may be renewable there is no way it can be sustainable. Compare the growing time with the burning time - on any large scale, quickly the rapacious maw of the furnace will not have enough to eat....

Quite correct.

I am reminded of the oak-tree problem which caused so much difficulty to the Royal Navy between 1700 and 1800. Oak trees were essential to build battleships, and they were used up faster than they grew. A simple calculation shows that the Royal Navy would cease to exist by he end of the 1800s - and yet when that time came it was the largest navy in the world.

Dec 4, 2015 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

JamesG: no need to build new hills, just drill holes in existing ones. Blow the expense.

Dec 4, 2015 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered Commenteroldbrew

David MacKay on twitter points out another inconsistency in the Grauniad story. Watts says:
"In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies"
but later on:
"the main attraction for foreign investors like Enercon is a fixed price for 20 years that is guaranteed by the state utility."

MacKay asks: Is that not a subsidy?

Dec 4, 2015 at 10:24 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

There were droughts (2010-12 on your graphic) whichg led to massive expense importing oil.

In 2012 they got a $435M insurance against loss of hydro generating capacity from the World Bank. This expired 2015.

They have borrowed a lot of money to install wind capacity - apparently Uruguay (pop. 3.3 million) is an ideal location getting capacity factors of 40%.

Of course their wind is intermittent like everyone else's which is why they are also building a new 540MW gas plant.

The end result at 800MW is that they have 240 W/person wind while in the UK we have 220 W/person. There is nothing trailblazing in all this, the Guardian piece is typically slanted to their readership (as was yours Bish).

Sources various, mostly Bloomberg and World Bank.

Dec 4, 2015 at 10:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Mott

I found new evidence of wind pushing up, and thermal power running at zero.
there is a Gridwatch type stats page on the UTE website. I can click "Histórico de la Comp. Energética" and plugin a date of from last month to this month gives you every dammed day but if you go to the totals of the page and wind looks like averaging about 25% of what hydro gives. ie Hydro 904MWh and wind at 225MWh.
For longer periods best click "Ver en forma gráfica" so you don't get pages and pages of data.
Of course the figs could be bogus and anyway you'd want to see wind sustain that performance over time .
and I but don't know at what cost..somebodies got to pay collecting wind isn't free masses of infrastructure are needed.

Dec 4, 2015 at 11:02 AM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

In this part of France there has been a move to remove Hydro-Electric barrages in recent years.

Maison Rouge Vienne RIver
Saint Etienne de Vigan Dam

Dec 4, 2015 at 12:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

"a hefty investment in wind, biomass and solar"

So where's the solar output, then..?

Come to that, how is Biomass 'clean energy'?

Dec 4, 2015 at 1:10 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

The figures on the charts used on the post are old. And that is very important as you will see...
The main explanation for all this, is that starting on 2007 the Uruguayan government launched a huge program to redesign the energy matrix mostly towards wind and solar but also some biomass (just to cover the ability created by the paper industry that was not used before).
It is a lie that the transformation was not subsidized. It was... Heavily. Just by guaranteeing prices close to $100 (US) / MW for 20 to 30 years depending on the contract.
The point here is that huge wind fields (and also some solar) contracts with major global groups started to become signed by 2010 and following years.
Those projects started to become operational on the second half of 2014, and since then significant capacity have been connected to the grid almost every month.
This is planned to continue at least until the end of 2016.
Specially in the last couple of months there has been days reported by the utility company that 100% coming from renewable sources, with wind as a major component.
That means that if your data is old is hard to understand the headline.
A consideration is that while it is true that the projects became actually operational in the last 12 to 18 months, the government program that designed all this was planned 7 or 8 years ago and has been executed consistently.

Another comment is that every specialist knows that hydro is in fact a renewable source. The thing is that in some jurisdictions (specially in the US but there are others), they are not considered renewable by the regulators just as an attempt to force the utilities and energy companies to invest in generating using more modern renewable sources that have a minor negative impact on the environment (like wind and solar which are way more expensive than hydro).
In other words... Hydro is renewable but it's setup is not environmentally friendly, and that is why several regulations excluded it.

Dec 4, 2015 at 1:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterGabriel C

Is this paragraph from the article inferring that all the new wind power has been used to push water back up hill so that, in effect, it's going down through the hydro-turbines under gravity, and then back up under wind, a bit like a yo-yo? Surely that can't make sense?

"Windfarms such as Peralta now feed into hydro power plants so that dams can maintain their reservoirs longer after rainy seasons. According to Méndez, this has reduced vulnerability to drought by 70% – no small benefit considering a dry year used to cost the country nearly 2% of GDP"

Dec 4, 2015 at 2:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Brown


Guardian Readers are just a thick as the proverbial "Sun Readers" of the old Jasper Carrott jokes.

Sun readers have two worthy characteristics that Guardian readers appear to lack: experience of the real world and common sense.

Dec 4, 2015 at 2:14 PM | Registered Commenterthinkingscientist

@Gab good points, butthat last bit : see above Dec 4, 2015 at 1:03 AM | @John F. Hultquist explained, they put hydro on the 'dirty' side so that they don't have to pay massive subsidies to existing dams (after @chris mentioned Ca's policy)
Are bird killing wind/solar environmentally friendly ?

I gave the link for newer data above.
- Jeez it never entered my head that people invest in wind/solar without a massive subsidy ..The Guardian said there wasn't one ? It really is a bit old and doddery isn't it. A 'nice' man knocks at their door and they believe everything he says, whilst denouncing their own friendly neighbours as "Satan's".

"without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, according to the country’s head of climate change policy," Ramón Méndez.(politician)
...I don't know about the Uruguay price trend , but I found a comment "Uruguay and we have had a similar price hike but over several years." on an article about price rises of 23.4% in Brazil

Dec 4, 2015 at 2:33 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

What is biomasa?
Do they burn the green?

Dec 4, 2015 at 2:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Silver

Dec 4, 2015 at 1:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterGabriel C: "In other words... Hydro is renewable but its setup is not environmentally friendly, and that is why several regulations excluded it."

Hydro-electricity is politically charged (apologies for the unintentional pun). Chinese schemes on the Mekong sabotage agriculture in Laos and Cambodia. Turkish schemes on the Euphrates and the Tigris were calculated to destroy Kurdish villages, while their impact on Syria and Iraq weren't a very high priority.

In Britain, there is no scope for expanding hydro-electricity. The water supply is big enough but the pointy bits in the landscape aren't.

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

"building more hydro projects and the projections of ecological doom will be resounding!"

11:47 PM | Registered Commenter Green Sand

Indeed. Here in Canada, there is a proposal to put another dam on a river in what is called "cottage country", i.e., where the wealthy from Toronto go for their summer vacations.

Do I need to tell you how much opposition this has from people who, I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn, consider themselves "green" and WANT cleaner power.

BTW, this is what is happening in Ontario, Canada:

As for biomass: some of it is poop, actually, human or otherwise, but in general, its wood and other plants.

Many "green" or "sustainable" European producers of biomass are apparently importing wood chips from North America. Let that one settle in your brain a bit.

And for the other plants, one early proponent of it has said of using ethanol derived from corn as saying: "I said use WASTE plants, not stuff that people actually eat".

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterCaligula Jones

Gabriel C

I was amused to see that the author of the Guardian piece recently wrote a piece about environmentalist protests about a hydro scheme in Argentina.

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:13 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:04 PM | Unregistered Commenter Owen Morgan

Re: Syria

Apparently, Assad did what all socialist dictators have done for decades (see: USSR, Aral Sea) and diverted water to use to grow cotton for export to get some hard currency.

But, hey, climate change causes refugees, not idiotic decisions made by despots running a police state.

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterCaligula Jones

Dec 4, 2015 at 3:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterCaligula Jones

I don't disagree with you about Assad. Saddam Hussein dammed the Tigris, too, and, as with the Turks, I think the Kurds were intentional victims of the construction. In 2014, what used to be the "Saddam Hussein Dam" fell briefly into the hands of the islamic state, highlighting another problem with dams. It's not just the destruction they cause at the time of construction, but the fact that they remain hostages to fortune ever afterwards.

There's a trade-off, too, I suppose, because hydro can obviously produce genuinely significant amounts of electricity, in a certain kind of environment, as the graph in the Bishop's article displays, although I suspect any major European country would get through Uruguay's electricity supply alarmingly fast. Meanwhile, I am working out the plot of a novel, in which a hostile power takes seriously the claims of Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and tries to hold the nation to ransom, by seizing all the offshore wind-turbines. Working title: "Calm Sea or Prosperous Voyage?"

Dec 5, 2015 at 7:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

The UK has lotsa rain, but few high mountain valleys. Get excavating!

Dec 7, 2015 at 6:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrian H

Meanwhile, Uruguay continues to export hydropower to Brazil.

Oct 29, 2017 at 11:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

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