Colombia accelerates offshore wind, but without assessing impacts

(epbr) “The wind and the strength of our seas place us in a privileged position for the installation of wind energy projects, which will allow us to be the first country in Latin America to produce this energy offshore”, said the Minister of Mines and Energy of Colombia, Irene Vélez, at the end of May, when announcing the first auction for the sector in the Colombian Caribbean.

A few days later, the government launched a platform to publicize the initiative’s implementation process. The portal presents last year’s report commissioned by the World Bank and the plans left by the previous administration.

According to Vélez, the last details of the tender should be ready in August. The chosen companies will have up to eight years to carry out the necessary studies and make the projects viable — from then on, they will be able to request maritime concessions to carry out the works and operate the turbines for a period of 30 years, extendable for another 15.

Despite government efforts, there are still many challenges for offshore wind energy to become a reality in Colombia.

Halted renewable projects

Of the 80 non-conventional renewable energy projects (wind and solar) expected to come on stream in Colombia in 2023 and 2024, only 28 are progressing smoothly, according to a recent report by SER Colombia, an association for the renewable energy sector. The others are delayed due to socio-environmental or legal conflicts.

Among them is Enel Colombia’s Windpeshi wind project, located in the department of La Guajira, in the extreme north of the country. On May 24, the company announced the indefinite suspension of the project following a series of conflicts with the Wayuu indigenous communities, ancestral inhabitants of that territory.

The Colectora project, which would take energy from seven wind farms in La Guajira to the rest of the country, has been postponed for three years. Other renewable energy initiatives struggle to connect to the national power grid.

Potential in the oceans

Offshore wind energy has proven to be a promising alternative source worldwide. In 2021 alone, the expansion of the global installed capacity of offshore wind farms more than tripled, reaching record numbers: there were 21.1 new gigawatts (GW) compared to the additional 6.1 GW in 2020.

Colombia is among the nations with one of the greatest wind energy potentials in the world. “We are the only ones in South America with two oceans and we have a huge maritime territory, equivalent to almost 50% of the country”, says oceanographer Andrea Devis-Morales, specialized in offshore energy.

Devis-Morales works on research at the National University of Medellín to assess the renewable energy potential in Colombia’s seas. Her study evaluates not only the strength of the wind, but also waves and sea currents, as well as the conversion of thermal energy and the so-called blue energy, obtained from the difference in salt concentration between sea and river water.

The researcher emphasizes that wind has an advantage over other sources: “The thermal gradient and the saline are not yet technologically advanced enough. The technology to extract energy from the wind has already advanced a lot, as well as to keep the platforms afloat in the sea, despite the strong climatic and meteorological variations”.

Unresolved issues

Although the Colombian government is confident it will complete the Caribbean auction in the near future, the bidding rules still have loopholes.

The specific regulatory framework for the activity has been debated since 2020. The national plan for offshore wind energy was published in May 2022, detailing its potential and challenges in the medium and long term.

Last August, the government published a resolution that establishes the norms and requirements for granting temporary occupation licenses in the first stage of project development.

The Colombian Caribbean coast, where the country’s greatest potential for offshore wind energy is concentrated, is also home to protected areas, areas of biological and ecological importance, as well as essential habitats for the conservation of species and ecosystems. Its waters are also important for artisanal and industrial fishing, and the coastal areas are ancestral territories of indigenous communities.

It is a region of constant maritime traffic — not only for fishing, but also for cargo transport and tourism. It is also close to the Panama Canal and has areas intended for offshore oil exploration.

Dimar, the authority in charge of monitoring maritime and coastal activities in Colombia, oversaw the demarcation of areas it deemed to have “low levels of conflict” where offshore wind projects could coexist with other marine activities.

As the plan itself points out, a project in the wrong place can generate major socio-environmental impacts. To minimize them, says the document, environmental impact studies (EIAs), social participation and good marine spatial planning will be necessary.

This opinion is reinforced by a report published in April by CLEANaction, an initiative of organizations such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy.

“We know that renewable energy is our best option to meet future energy needs without irreparably harming the climate and nature, but even renewable energy will disrupt the environment,” warns the document.

Researcher Juan Gabriel Rueda, a civil engineer and specialist in offshore wind energy, believes that Colombia lacks data on the subject. “There is no clear legal context to regulate the sustainable and safe exploitation of offshore wind energy”, wrote Rueda in a scientific article published in 2019.

Perceptions have not changed since then. “The plan that guides the discussions did not consider the research carried out here in Colombia on the subject”, explains Rueda, referring to the report commissioned during the government of Iván Duque.

“The decisions were made without consulting the academy. The State lacks information, justifying the hiring of foreign consultants who, although experienced, do not have the same social, environmental and cultural conditions and particularities in their countries as ours”.

Among the challenges are the possible impacts on migratory birds, as highlighted by the Colombian plan: “The construction of offshore wind farms poses a danger to birds, mainly in relation to their movement, habitat loss and the risk of collision” , observes the scientist.

There is a similar concern for marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees. In the Caribbean waters of Colombia, 29 species were identified (83% of those recorded in the country) potentially sensitive to construction activities, underwater noise and the risk of collision with vessels.

“Currently, there is no map of marine acoustics with current noise levels, and we don’t know how [offshore wind projects] can affect marine species,” points out Rueda.

Companies interested in developing offshore projects in Colombia must submit an EIA — an essential step for carrying out any work of this type. However, there is still no clarity on how this should work for turbines in the middle of the sea.

The report contacted the National Authority for Environmental Licensing and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, responsible for publishing the EIA rules for offshore wind projects, but there was no response until the publication of the article.

By Daniela Quintero Díaz — This report was originally produced by Climate Tracker Latin America. The version was translated and edited by Diálogo Chino with permission.

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