The convergence of tropical atmospheric currents generate a steady wind across Northern Colombia. This persistent climatic phenomenon provides the potential for a very reliable and expansive source of wind-generated power. The desert-like conditions of this region also offer tremendous potential for solar-generated renewable energy. With the assistance of USAID, Colombia is now utilizing these untapped resources to expand its national power grid with abundant, renewable clean energy.
Colombia is not unfamiliar with clean energy. Hydroelectric power makes up a significant portion of Colombia’s current energy market. Steady winds from the Amazon Rainforest bring abundant humidity and consistent rainfall to the Colombian Andes, where fifty-three large reservoirs provide competitive, clean energy that powers 67 percent of the national grid. But, in years of drought and during periods of high demand, power operators are forced to substitute increases in dirty and expensive fossil fuel generation to ensure uninterrupted access, dramatically increasing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 58 percent per year.
Until recently, the Colombian Government was hesitant to transition towards non-conventional large-scale renewable energy, due to pre-existing market structure rigidities. But, as the costs of renewable energy operations and battery storage continued to decrease and the technology advanced, Colombia fully embraced the transition away from natural gas and coal.
By 2017, as the technology, efficiency, and costs of renewable energy became increasingly competitive and difficult to ignore, the Colombian Government decided to open its energy market to solar and wind power. In 2019, USAID supported the Colombian Government in designing and implementing the region’s first renewable energy auctions, offering unprecedented 15-year contracts to construct solar and wind-powered farms and integrate the winning projects into the national grid.
“This was the first time in Colombia’s energy history that long-term contracts became available in the energy market,” says Thomas Black, the Renewable Energy Leader for the USAID Colombia Mission, which supports the transition with technical assistance for the efficient integration of variable renewables.
To resolve various regulatory, market, and institutional barriers, USAID brought in a team of specialists who could provide recommendations based on regional and global experiences to help the Ministry of Mines and Energy design an effective auction program for Colombia. The auction in October 2019 successfully led to contracts for 14 renewable energy projects, at significantly cheaper costs of USD $27.9 MW/hour, one of the lowest rates in the world, with implementation expected between 2023-2025. This achievement has now increased to over 140 new projects being registered to develop wind and solar plants throughout Colombia, potentially adding 7 GigaWatts of clean energy to the grid by 2030.
The next challenge is to integrate these variable energy sources into the Colombian system. USAID is currently leading a high-level capacity-building program to train young professionals in the Colombian energy sector on efficient practices and methods for integrating high volumes of variable renewables. Utilizing the U.S.’s vast knowledge and experience, the training brings in experts from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) and the U.S. Energy Agency (USEA), who represent top leaders in research and the industry.
“The U.S. has a tremendous amount of experience in this challenge of integrating variable renewable energy,” says Mr. Black, who currently leads the course. “The US Independent service operators and market managers have developed a series of tools, markets, instruments, and regulatory models to be able to integrate the irregular variable supply into an energy system and efficiently meet the daily demands of energy from all of the sectors.”
Colombia's new renewable energy projects will also provide tremendous employment opportunities – estimated by NREL to be over 40,000 jobs. Many of these projects are in Northern Colombia, which is predominantly indigenous land. USAID is currently developing a program to focus on providing relevant job training to members of these local indigenous communities so they can compete for employment in this expanding energy sector. As these projects will be in their backyards, enabling the indigenous communities to access these good-paying jobs will be a worthy consideration for sustainable social and economic development.
Tedi S. Rabold is a science journalist specializing in writing and documentary video production about environmental conservation and public health. She currently provides communications support for various USAID environmental projects. She also works as a paralegal and is currently preparing to sit for the U.S. Patent Office Bar Exam. Tedi holds a Master of Science in Science Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from The George Washington University, with specialized studies in marine biology at James Cook University in Australia.