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Is the Answer to Climate Change Blowing in the Winds of Uruguay?

The windswept South American country has become a world leader in wind energy in less than a decade.
(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Uruguay—the tiny South American country with a population smaller than Los Angeles—has become a world leader in renewable energy. Uruguay gets nearly 95 percent of its electricity from renewables, according to Ramón Méndez, the head of climate change policy in Uruguay. A rapidly growing portion of that renewable energy comes from the wind. Roughly a decade ago, the country had no wind energy industry to speak of, but a new working paper from the World Resources Institute finds that Uruguay is now building more wind energy installations per capita than anywhere else in the world.

In a few short years, Uruguay's wind energy industry was completely transformed—a feat that nearly every developed country around the world would need to replicate if we are to meet the global warming limits of less than two degrees Celsius set at last year's COP21 conference in Paris. Uruguay's wind transformation was at least in part spurred by a changing climate: Before 2007, the country relied on hydropower for the majority of its electricity, but a series of dry years in the preceding decade forced Uruguay—a nation without its own oil reserves—to invest in new energy sources.

To encourage wind energy development, the government funded the Uruguay Wind Energy Programme, dedicated to reforming the country's energy policies. Those reforms set a fixed price for power producers to sell renewable energy to the grid, and required the state's utility company, Usinas y Trasmisiones Eléctricas, to buy up all wind energy. To ensure that wind projects didn't languish in the development stage, the government promised a better price per megawatt to generators who'd managed to get up and running before 2015.

"Uruguay’s wind sector was one of the most successful cases we found," Joe Thwaites, a research analyst at WRI and lead author of the paper, wrote in an accompanying blog post. "The way it achieved results provides powerful lessons for other nations looking to transform their energy systems."

Which, really, should be all of them. Especially given that, in many countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Australia, and even some parts of the United States, the cost of starting up a wind energy installation is on par with starting up new coal- or gas-fired energy generation plants.


Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.