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Elbia Melo: Brazil's wind-energy boss is 'defending a good cause'

Elbia Melo was chosen as the first executive president of the Brazilian wind-power association, ABEEólica, because of her well-rounded background in the electricity industry and a vast network of contacts.

With wind becoming the leading power source being contracted in Brazil, the association needed to grow and become more professional.

Melo hit the ground running last August, setting several goals to be reached by the end of this year. They include making wind viable on the unregulated market for small and medium-sized developers, and setting up local research and development capacity to build Brazil-specific technology.

“We have an infinite number of items to deal with,” Melo tells Recharge. Wind has found its place through recent energy tenders, but that position must be consolidated, she says.

In the past three years, the association has grown from 27 to 96 members. A decision to appoint a paid president was made in late 2010 — having always had a volunteer heading the group.

Due to the growing importance of the unregulated market, ABEEólica looked for someone who had strong connections with the Chamber of Electrical Energy Commercialisation, CCEE; the electricity regulatory agency, Aneel; and the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME).

Pedro Perrelli, executive director at ABEEólica, and Ricardo Simões, the association’s previous president, met Melo at an event in 2010, where she spoke after receiving an award for her work at the CCEE, which she had just left. “We exchanged a look and went after her,” says Perrelli.

Melo was looking at an offer from a Canadian firm developing infrastructure projects in Brazil, but she chose ABEEólica because it brought her career full circle. She had been involved in developing the government’s first alternative-energy incentive programme, Proinfa, which helped get wind off the ground, and also worked on the first tenders for wind energy.

“Associations have an interesting perspective, because they help form the model in the formation of policy. And since I have spent my life doing this, it was a way to continue in the sector,” she says. “Defending wind is also defending a good cause, so I went for the cause.”

Melo was influenced to choose a career in the electricity industry by her teachers, not her family. “My parents raised me to get married,” she says, and indeed she did tie the knot and had her only son at 19.

The youngest of eight children, Melo, who has just turned 40, was born in a small town in Minas Gerais state, where her father farmed land owned by other people.

She was determined to go to college, something not done by any of her seven siblings — the oldest of whom is 60. Her parents did not understand at first, but eventually acquiesced and moved the family to Uberlândia, where she got a bachelor’s degree in economics at the federal university.

Melo wanted to become a university professor, and so did a master’s degree, again in economics, at the Federal University of Santa Catarina. While working towards a PhD in production engineering, she was asked by Aneel to help set up policies to protect the market from monopolies, and has never turned back. However, she does occasionally teach classes and write articles to satisfy her academic desires.

After Aneel, Melo worked at the MME under Dilma Rousseff — now Brazil’s President — on a team that was battling a national electricity shortage.

In 2006, she moved to the CCEE, where she helped develop a regulatory framework, as well as the tenders that took wind to the forefront.

Perrelli says Melo is accelerating ABEEólica’s work on framing regulations, particularly through her “excellent ability to network within Aneel and the CCEE”. Those used to be weak points for ABEEólica, although it had good connections with the energy research centre, EPE, and the MME.

“We are working on a contract [to mitigate intermittency] for the ACL [the unregulated market],” says Melo. Big companies with diverse generation sources can handle the risk of intermittency but other developers cannot. “Once we do that, we can insert wind into the unregulated market.”

Although the wind industry has won contracts for large amounts of capacity in the past two years, the proof of its credibility will come in July, when projects that won deals at the first wind tender in December 2009 are scheduled to come on line.

“We have gone through fast growth and are not prepared for the logistics of transportation and transmission,” says Melo.

The biggest headache is delays in grid construction. Some 900MW of wind projects are facing transmission hold-ups.

“On 1 July, we will have many wind farms coming on line, but the transmission lines won’t be there,” says Melo. “This is going to be a scandal, this will hurt the image of wind.”

Transmission lines were tendered one year after the 2009 energy tender, on the assumption it would take three years to build the wind farms and two years to build the grid links. But data from Aneel shows that some transmission projects have fallen up to 13 months behind schedule.

Wind developers will receive compensation if their projects are ready but they cannot connect to the grid, which will not look good for the industry, Melo says.

ABEEólica is in discussions about the issue with Aneel, and the association is looking at designing a new model for transmission-line development and ways to make planning more flexible.

With electricity demand estimated to grow by at least 5GW a year, natural gas being directed elsewhere, big hydro plants struggling to get licences and small-hydro and biomass schemes unable to compete, wind power is well placed.

The big question is how much wind the electricity system can handle without being put at risk by intermittency. Consultants hired by ABEEólica are expected to arrive at a figure of about 30%. That should mean many more wind farms can be built, at least until 2030. “I don’t see a reduction in investment,” says Melo.

Biography

Name: Elbia Melo

Age: 40

Place of birth: Ituiutaba, Minas Gerais

Place of residence: São Paulo

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics from the Federal University of Uberlândia; master’s degree in economics; and a doctorate in production engineering from the Federal University of Santa Catarina

Career: 2000-01: adviser at Aneel and Eletrobras; 2001-02: economist at the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME); 2002-03: institutional policy co-ordinator at the Finance Ministry; 2003-06: economist at the MME; 2006-10: director at the Chamber of Electrical Energy Commercialisation; 2010, joined ABEEólica

Personal: Single, with one son

Hobbies: Cooking, writing a cooking blog, pilates, cycling, running, travel, movies, books and wine