IN DEPTH: Building Bahia's wind

Renova Energia’s 1GW Alto Sertão wind complex in Bahia

Renova Energia’s 1GW Alto Sertão wind complex in Bahia

It may not have had its first operational wind farm until 2012, but Bahia is now the dominant state in Brazil’s wind power sector, winning about 40% of projects at recent national tenders and hosting many of the country’s wind factories, including those of Gamesa, Alstom and Acciona.

It is an industrial boom that is generating jobs and increasing tax revenues in the relatively impoverished state — money that is being invested in better roads, schools and hospitals.

“[The industry] is transforming the region,” says Rafael Valverde, the executive secretary for energy affairs at Bahia’s industry secretariat, who has taken a leading role in the state’s wind development. “This is what the government saw four years ago: job creation and the potential of social and economic change. This is why we gave it priority.”

When Valverde — then a 26-year-old postgraduate electrical-engineering student — was appointed to his current position in June 2010, he immediately set about drawing up and implementing the policies that would attract wind developers and manufacturers to the state. (Valverde had been appointed by his former teacher at the University of Salvador, industry secretary Jaime Correa, after multiple recommendations from academia and industry for his research on renewables and sustainable development).

“Rafael Valverde has had a very important role in helping to develop renewable energy in the state of Bahia, especially wind power, because he realised the importance of the wind resource in the state and worked to support and develop the technology, taking into account all the advantages that its production chain offers,” says Élbia Melo, executive president of the Brazilian wind-power association, ABEEólica.

Of course, it helped that Bahia has ideal conditions for wind farms. Not only does it have consistently strong winds, but it has huge tracts of sparsely populated, drought-ridden semi-arid land (known locally as Caatinga) that is unsuitable for farming. The poor families that have lived on the land, in many cases for generations, welcomed the prospect of wind turbines — and their royalty payments — with open arms.

Indeed, one of the state’s most important tasks has been to guarantee property rights for these small landholders, most of whom had never had a land title for their property, due to lack of necessity or a lack of cash. So far, 16,000 titles have been established.

It also helped that Bahia already had a diversified industrial base, particularly in the shipbuilding and petrochemical sectors, which helped the state understand what developers and manufacturers wanted.

So under Valverde’s guidance, Bahia offered tax breaks for companies and suppliers wishing to invest in the state; created a fast-track system for environmental licensing; offered legal and bureaucratic support to negotiate land leases; and improved roads between project sites, ports and the main wind industrial hub at Camaçari.

“To turn comparative advantage into a competitive advantage depends a lot on the capacity of decision makers, so, in this aspect, Valverde has contributed a lot to the state of Bahia and to country’s wind-power sector as whole,” says Melo.

“The secret is dialogue and making sure everything flows to give priority for renewables,” explains the 30-year-old, who has been selected for the Recharge4040 initiative. “Environmental and energy, as well as fiscal and industrial policies, must work together. The support for the sector must permeate the whole of the government’s discourse.

“The federal government could learn a little from the state of Bahia and make renewable energy a priority.”

Trips to the Brazilian capital are commonplace for Valverde, who sees involvement in nationwide regulations and tax-incentive programmes as part of his job. His most recent battle in Brasilia was to fight to keep the 50% discount on transmission and distribution fees for renewables projects, which lawmakers wanted to remove. Overnight teleconferences and meetings between congressmen and representatives from Bahia and other wind states guaranteed that the benefit was upheld.

But Valverde is critical of the federal government’s approach. “The Mines and Energy Ministry does not work together with the Environment Ministry, and neither have free communications channels to the finance and industry ministries,” he says. “This makes things very bureaucratic. To cite one example, it has taken six years for the Environment Ministry to approve nationwide licensing guidelines for wind power projects.”

After helping secure an initial R$16m ($7.2m) from the federal government to build a renewable-energy research centre in the state — which will focus on certification of locally made machinery and investigate the effects of local climatic conditions on turbines — Valverde’s work in the public sector is coming to a close. At the end of this year, when Governor Jacques Wagner leaves office, Valverde will enter the private sector for the first time, probably as an energy consultant, fighting for renewables “from the other side”.

“I believe that we will leave the wind-power sector in a well-structured place for the next government [in Bahia],” he says.

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