How 'dramatic' is the shift to 95% renewable electricity in Uruguay?

By Aleh Cherp

In a recent article, the Guardian praised Uruguay for making a ‘dramatic shift’ to almost 95% of renewable electricity while at the same time reducing electricity and oil imports. The story focuses on several useful policy lessons, but what else can other countries learn from Uruguay’s shift? And has there been any shift in the first place?

The figure below shows the electricity mix of Uruguay starting from 1970. Although it does not illustrate the recent introduction of several large-scale wind projects, we can already make several observations.

Electricity mix in Uruguay by fuel type. The black line shows gross national supply (production + net imports). Data from  IEA (2015), aggregation and presentation © by V. Vinichenko

Uruguay’s electricity was already nearly carbon-free (based on hydropower) and self-sufficient in the 1980s. During the more recent decades it was hit not only by droughts (mentioned by the Guardian) but more importantly - by a strong demand increase (not mentioned by the Guardian). The resulting supply-demand gap led to electricity and oil imports, the first ‘shift’ in the electricity system.

The second ‘shift’ is indeed occurring now. To reduce electricity and oil imports while meeting rising demand, Uruguay has installed unprecedented wind power capacity (some 400-500 MWe) (which the Guardian mentions) backed up by even more impressive natural gas-fired capacity (which the Guardian does not discuss). This increased the share of renewables in electricity generation from some 85% to ca 95%,

What does this story tell us about the feasibility of rapid and massive renewable energy introduction in small countries? The ‘strong policies’ praised by the Guardian are effective if there is:

  • a strong pressure to meet demand with secure supply (usually demand growth combined with the lack of domestic fossils);
  • favourable geography (strong winds, coastal proximity allowing for LNG imports and international connections which can help load balancing - basically exporting excess electricity and natural gas and buying from neighbors when the wind doesn't blow);
  • strong financial muscles (over $2,000 per capita has been invested in the wind and natural gas infrastructure);
  • ready foreign suppliers, such as German Enercon for wind and the US APR Energy for gas-fired power plants (one of which was airlifted and installed in amazing 45 days).