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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 16:33 GMT
Patagonia wind aids remote communities
By Max Seitz
BBC News website, in Patagonia

Marcos Nahuelhual
Tehuelche Indians descendant Marcos works installing turbines

Wind energy is the most widespread renewable energy source in Argentina - and Patagonia in particular has extraordinary potential due to its strong and constant winds.

As part of the BBC's Fuelling The Future series, Max Seitz went to southern Chubut province, where wind energy is making life easier for a number of isolated communities, many of them home to indigenous peoples.

After a very bumpy flight the plane landed in northern Patagonia and when I got off I understood immediately the reason for the turbulence.

A strong current of air prevented me from walking along the runway to the Trelew airport terminal in Chubut province, some 1,430km (890 miles) south of Buenos Aires.

In the distance, trees were bending over as if trying to resist an invisible force.

I was now experiencing first-hand what I had already been warned about: Patagonian wind is a force to be reckoned with, a constant and very robust presence.

Julian Ibanez owns horses and sheep but his prize possession is a three-blade wind turbine

How could it not turn the blades of a wind turbine?

And indeed it is doing much more: In the midst of a dark wilderness, wind-generated electricity is changing lives in the region, lighting homes and schools in remote areas.

No pylons

"Patagonia provides ideal conditions, unique almost, for the development of wind power," explained Hector Mattio, Director of the Regional Centre for Wind Power (or Cree in Spanish).

"We get very strong sustained winds of 11 metres per second, while in Europe they usually only reach about nine," Mattio added.

Cree - funded by the Chubut government and located in the provincial capital Rawson, near Trelew - currently has many community projects on the go to install wind generators.

So far, more than 300 isolated rural villages in Chubut have received small wind turbines which provide them with light, communication and power for domestic electric appliances.

Those who have benefited include Tehuelche and Araucano Indians, or their descendants.

Accompanied by Cree technician Marcos Nahuelhual - who happened to be of Tehuelche descent - I travelled to the interior of Chubut province to visit some of the hamlets around the town of Chacay Oeste.

Our car went for hours along dirt tracks amid arid countryside, not a soul in sight - save for the odd ostrich, guanaco or sheep crossing our path. Not a single pylon to be seen.

As the track diminished and became almost impossible to negotiate, we came across signs of life in the shape of a few dwellings dispersed around an unnamed settlement. Luckily, Marcos knew where we were going.

Changing the fuses

A 66-year-old Araucano Indian, Julian Ibanez, welcomed us to his stone-built house.

Thanks to the "windmills", electrical supply is constant

Julian owns horses and sheep but his prize possession is a three-blade, 12-metre high wind turbine with 600-watt power (the equivalent of 10 light bulbs). Like others in the region, he simply calls it the "windmill".

Julian greeted us politely, invited us in and gave us biscuits and mate (a popular herbal brew drunk through a long metal straw).

"They installed the windmill a while ago now and it's changed our lives. We didn't have electricity before, just a kerosene lamp and that was it; now we have light and we can listen to the radio."

Julian led me to a plain bedroom, where he had a fuse box attached to the wall and a 12-volt car battery, and explained how everything worked.

The wind turns the windmill blades and a cable takes the energy produced into the house. The fuse box controls the voltage and battery charge.

Julian Ibanez
Now I feel I communicate more with other people
Julian Ibanez

Marcos added that the electrical supply is constant - whether it comes directly from the generator or, when there is no wind, from what has been stored by the accumulator.

Some dwellings have installed an inverter, a gadget to transform a 12 volt output into 220 volts - ideal for domestic appliances.

"Now I feel I communicate more with other people. Not like before - we were a bit unsociable," Julian confessed after telling me that he regularly listens to the radio to find out what is going on, and that he really appreciates the Cree technicians' visits.

And at Cree they confirm that this is indeed what it is all about: The social impact the technology has had on the communities has helped to integrate them more.

Computers and TV

Another inhabitant of the area, 30-year-old Adelino Cual, also an Araucano, had this to say: "We have electricity 24 hours a day, not just the little lamp we had before. We no longer have to buy kerosene or gas-oil. It works out cheaper for us."

The engineers had shown him how to work and maintain the generator and the fuse box: "They taught me, for example, how to change the fuses if they blow; I've changed them several times," he said.

Ana Maria Huenchulef
The windmills have changed things a lot for the youngsters [at school]. Now they have access to computers
Ana Maria Huenchulef

And Marcos added that the idea is for those benefiting from the technology to be self-sufficient.

After visiting the hamlets around about, we made our way to the heart of Chacay Oeste, which comprises a dozen or so houses and a school-shelter which accommodates some 30 pupils from neighbouring settlements.

The school has been provided with six wind turbines, installed by Cree in the highest part of the town.

School coordinator Ana Maria Huenchulef was very grateful to have received these "windmills".

"They provide energy for our building, for the shelter and also the teachers' houses. During the school holidays, they are used to supply energy to the rest of the village".

Before turbines were installed, Chacay Oeste got its electricity from a petrol generator, the noise of which had become part of the landscape for the locals.

"The windmills have changed things a lot for the youngsters. Now they have access to computers, and teachers can educate them through television programmes."

The children have not only noticed an improvement in their education, but also how they spend their free time. Many of them mentioned how they can now enjoy TV during a prolonged stay at the school.

Traditional candles

Cesar Antillanco
Cesar still lives isolated and without light

Marcos and I stayed overnight at the school - the only place available - and next morning we went to meet Cesar Antillanco, 41.

Cesar, an Araucano descendent, lives on a farm in Arroyo Mirasol to the west, several hours from Rawson. Like in the rest of the province, many people are without electricity.

"We still use traditional candles. We are used to living like this, but it would be nice to have a windmill to provide electricity and to be able to communicate with others, especially now that my mother is getting on."

There are very few doctors around, and in an emergency they have to travel a long way to their patients.

Marcos, the Cree technician, made a note and promised to do something about it.

And as he gave Cesar his telephone number, the wind kept blowing incessantly, just as it had throughout the trip. This persistent and vigorous force is really changing lives.

Hear about the use of wind turbines in Spain

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