Braga exit casts cloud over South America


April 25, 2016

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If you are not yet in South America, you might have missed out.

Over the last week we have seen a couple of stories that should give firms considering a move into this hitherto fast-growing market reasons to think again about their investment plans. We could soon be in a situation where the continent’s top two wind markets are in reverse, with all of the damage that would bring to development and other investment opportunities.

First, the pro-renewables Eduardo Braga left his role as Brazil’s mines and energy minister amid political turmoil over the potential impeachment of the president, Dilma Rousseff. It is a significant change as Braga has presided over a 46% rise in the country’s wind capacity to 8.7GW in the last 16 months. Any change like this can signal an end to support for wind.

And noises coming out of the Brazilian government have been non-committal. Braga said that he hoped his predecessor would continue with his pro-wind policies, but there can be no guarantee of this in such a time of economic and political upheaval.

This is important because Brazil is dominant in terms of the wind market in South America and the Caribbean, as it accounts for 71% of the region’s total wind capacity, and it is also the country with the best growth prospects for onshore wind to 2020. It is no overstatement to say that Braga’s replacement will have a key role in the future of wind in South America. It is a key appointment and, for now, the wind industry can only keep its fingers crossed.

And the second key story we have seen concerns the continent’s second-biggest wind market: Chile.

This year, Chile has seen the first slowdown in output from its copper mines since 2011. Growth in the copper sector has fuelled demand for new wind and solar capacity over the last two years but, in the first two months of 2016, the country saw its first year-on-year fall in output since 2011. Slowing demand from China has hit Chile’s copper output and prices.

This prompted Chile’s former government renewables head Carlos Barria to declare that “the first boom of clean energy is over”. Chile had total installed capacity of 933MW at the end of 2015 — which is still just one-tenth the size of Brazil’s wind market — and raises the risk that South America’s top two could suffer at the same time.

If Brazil and Chile both go into decline then it could have a devastating effect on wind in South America. Yes, there are other interesting wind markets on the continent — Argentina, Peru and Uruguay — but none could take up the slack of a slowing Brazil.

Uruguay has total installed capacity of 845MW and is looking to grow this further but, as a relatively small country, opportunities to build major scale will remain limited. And the likes of Argentina and Peru are both interesting, but the markets are largely embryonic.

And so we return to Brazil. What is going to happen?

Well, the replacement for Braga will be key, but there are reasons to be confident. The nation has contracted 10GW of wind farms to be built by the end of 2019, and two more auctions are due this year. Wind should continue to thrive in Brazil if there is an orderly transition to an energy minister that builds on Braga’s legacy.

But such transitions are rarely so orderly. Just ask Dilma Rousseff.

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