- Jepírachi, Colombia’s first wind farm, is waiting to be dismantled after reaching its end of life, but the process itself and the project’s legacy remain uncertain.
- Across the world, first-generation wind projects are becoming obsolete, and disposing of the equipment, especially of the wind blades, is challenging circularity goals; currently, most blades are used in cement factories.
- Three Wayuu communities depend on the desalination plant created by the wind farm company for their clean water, but now the communities question the future of their water security.
La Guajira, COLOMBIA — On Oct. 9, Colombia’s first wind farm, Jepírachi, officially reached its end of life after running for almost two decades in Uribia, in the northeastern region of La Guajira. After months of uncertainty regarding the project’s future, the wind farm has been disconnected from the national grid and is pending dismantlement. But with Colombia’s regulation gaps for disposing of renewable energy projects, experts are worried whether Jepírachi’s phaseout will be circular or create more waste. Indigenous communities in the area are also worried about the economic and environmental legacy of the project.
Inaugurated in 2004, Jepírachi, which means “northeast wind” in the Wayuu language, pioneered wind energy in Colombia. For 15 years, not much changed for the project operated by the Medellín Public Companies (EPM), a state-owned utilities company. But in 2019, the Energy and Gas Regulatory Commission updated requirements for solar and wind energy generation, which meant that Jepírachi would have to make technical upgrades in order to continue operating. EPM declared it could not comply due to high costs and “technological dependency” on the manufacturer of the turbines. The wind farm was later allowed to continue operating until October 2023.
In July, however, the government made a U-turn on the project. Alongside EPM, Irene Vélez, the former Minister of Mines and Energy, announced that Jepírachi would continue to operate under a public-popular alliance that would benefit the Wayuu. According to Vélez, the decision was in line with President Gustavo Petro’s policy to use public-private alliances to shift Colombia to cleaner energy. No details were made public regarding how this new model would work or the level of involvement of the Wayuu. Mongabay’s multiple requests for information from EPM and the Ministry of Mines and Energy (Minenergía) did not receive an answer. The announcement also surprised the Wayuu community.
“We never heard even a rumor that the ministry might stop the dismantlement of the farm,” said Nancy Gutiérrez, a Wayuu Indigenous leader. “I think this was a strategy to spare the costs of this [process] to EPM,” Gutiérrez told Mongabay. According to Law 1508 of 2012, public-private alliances distribute the costs and risks of a project between the state and private investors. But the Wayuu had not been consulted about the decision, according to Gutiérrez.
Despite this official plan, on the day established for Jepírachi’s end of the operation, the company backed out of its decision to create the public popular alliance and announced that the dismantlement process will go ahead. This generated further questioning and speculations over EPM’s intentions regarding the responsibility for, and costs of, the dismantlement process, according to Gutiérrez.
Phasing out wind farms in a circular economy
Jepírachi’s example is a reminder that renewable energy projects face end-of-life disposal challenges. Across the world, first-generation wind turbines are becoming obsolete. In 2020, for example, images from the state of Wyoming, U.S., showing massive landfills with thousands of disposed wind turbine blades went viral, drawing attention to the issues of waste from renewable energy.
Although 85-90% of a wind turbine can be recycled, the blades, which can range from about 50 meters (165 feet) to 123 meters (400 feet) long, remain problematic. “They are huge and take up a lot of space,” said Julien Walzberg, a researcher on circular economy and sustainability at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the U.S. In La Guajira, the 57 wind farms that are in various phases of development or operation will eventually generate around 8,499 waste blades in the next couple of decades.
Europe is expected to dispose of approximately 25,000 metric tons of wind turbine blades annually by 2025. Countries like Austria, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands have already taken environmental protection measures by banning landfilling; the European wind industry has called for a regional ban on blade landfilling by 2025. This has pushed companies to explore recycling methods such as using blades for bridge or playground construction to reduce waste, provide blades with a second life and shift the industry toward a more circular economy.
But Colombia does not have the infrastructure to process discarded wind turbine materials, according to the Regional Autonomous Corporation of La Guajira (Corpoguajira), the environmental authority looking into Jepírachi’s dismantlement plan. “Due to a lack of capabilities to manage or reuse the blades and other parts of the machines, we are requesting companies that these turbines be returned to their country of origin,” Sandra Guerrero, spokesperson of Corpoguajira, told Mongabay. This requirement would increase EPM’s cost for dismantling Jepírachi. In 2020, the company estimated that Jepírachi’s dismantlement would cost about $2 million. The financial report, however, did not specify whether that included transporting the waste blades abroad for proper disposal. Now that cost estimate jumped to almost $10 million, according to John Sossa Martínez, EPM spokesperson.
Reusing or redesigning wind blades continues to be a less common practice globally. Even in countries like Germany, with regulations against landfilling in place, most blades are used in cement factories, explained Walzberg. Cement kilns use the blades’ epoxy resin to replace other fuels, and the fiberglass is utilized as a substitute for sand or clay, typical materials needed to produce cement. “This does not represent a huge economic gain for the industry, but [it] can reduce carbon emissions on the process by [almost] 30%,” Walzberg told Mongabay.
While not optimal, this use by cement kilns could be employed until more advanced sustainable technologies are developed, Walzberg said. “When we think about a circular economy, we always say it is better to reuse, to rethink and to redesign. But cement co-processing is not even recycling because you are not making new blades out of old blades. This is downcycling [losing value in the recycling process].”
To avoid the dismantling of end-of-life wind farms, companies can consider life extension by leaving the basic structure in place and replacing parts (such as worn out blades) or by repowering to increase the size of the tower, blades and/or rotor.
But, according to Paul Veers, a wind energy researcher at the NREL in the U.S., life extension and repowering are difficult to finance if the wind farm is not very profitable. When economically possible, upgrading is an opportunity to increase energy productivity and wind farm revenues; for example, using longer blades and higher towers to significantly boost productivity. Full repowering, however, remains less common as it requires new permits. Less than 10% of wind turbines are currently repowered, according to Wind Europe.
EPM’s problematic legacy
During Jepírachi’s operation, EPM paid compensation for land use to three communities: Kasiwolin, Arutkajui and Polumana, home to about 300 people of the Pushaina, Epieyuu and Uliana clans. The payments, managed by EPM, were mainly investments in tourism and projects aimed at improving the communities’ livelihoods. Additional compensation was offered to pay for materials for goat herding or to support traditional handcrafting of woven goods.
Companies like EPM prefer to initiate and closely oversee where compensation is spent on behalf of Indigenous communities, perhaps out of a prevailing belief that those communities might misuse direct cash payments, possibly on nonessential items such as alcohol, said Joanna Barney, director of the Business, Human Rights and Environment Area at the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz). “No one questions when an entrepreneur like Ardila Lülle [one of the richest men in Colombia] spends their money on whiskey, but everyone wants to have a say over how [Indigenous] communities spend their money,” she told Mongabay.
According to Indigenous leaders, internal divisions between clans and within the communities have contributed to the failure of the compensation projects implemented by EPM. Disagreements over who managed the resources and who benefited from them led to projects being abandoned. “Before EPM arrived, there was a lot of solidarity,” said Gutiérrez.
Community conflicts have deepened also because the companies that want to develop projects in La Guajira have limited knowledge about Wayuu laws and customs. The Wayuu are a matrilineal society with traditional and ancestral authorities now disputing who should be compensated and make decisions. This has delayed wind energy development in the country and has even led to the withdrawal of a wind project under construction by one of Colombia’s major electricity providers, ENEL.
Formal work is scarce in La Guajira and some community members have become dependent on the income generated through EPM. According to Barney, “these systems lead to further impoverishment when the [wind] projects abandon the territory or create dependency from private companies that substitute the role of the state.” Oscar Bruges, member of the Pushaina clan in Kasiwolin, who worked with EPM in security and social project management through the NGO Ecosfera is considering relocating to the city after losing his job with EPM. “I don’t want to leave, but I will if I have to,” he said.
But one of Jepírachi’s most significant benefits has been access to clean water; in the early 2000s EPM installed a desalination plant, securing three local communities with water, a critical resource in La Guajira, a desert region facing water scarcity due to harsh environmental conditions and institutional neglect.
The desalination plant continues to operate for now, but EPM has not presented a plan regarding its future. Keeping the water running requires an energy source and the resources to carry out regular maintenance. Currently the desalination plant is connected to the national electric system through El Cerrejon, a coal mine whose port is located close to Jepírachi. Yet, the connection contract with El Cerrejon will end in a few months, which could leave communities without access to water if a different electric source is not found.
EPM told Mongabay that the company is “knocking on doors to guarantee the continuity and sustainability of the [desalination] plant.” According to Sossa Martínez, they expect the municipality to take charge of the operation and the local server of the electric connection. Locals worry this will not be enough, as neighboring communities don’t have permanent electricity connections and the municipality has left them without water before.
“What we hope the most for is that EPM leaves the community with access to water … hopefully for the rest of our lives,” said Rosaura Bruges, a local nursery school teacher. “Could you imagine the difficulties we will face without water?”
The back and forth on the dismantlement and the public-private alliance has created community concerns about EPM’s social and environmental responsibility, but also about other wind energy companies interested in working in the region. “We hope this will not become a repetitive issue where companies consult at the last minute about what to do with the [out-dated] wind turbines,” Barney said. “We are at risk that La Guajira will become an entire wind farm graveyard.”
So far, there is no date to begin the dismantlement process or information about where the disused parts of the turbines will be taken. In its most recent press release, EPM stated that they are awaiting the approval of the dismantlement plan presented to Corpoguajira and that the process will take between 9 and 12 months. No further payments will be given to the communities for this extra year of land use or to compensate for the disturbance created by the dismantlement process. The company added that all the parts will be disposed of adequately but did not specify where. EPM told Mongabay that they are looking for a buyer for the turbines in a country without Colombia’s regulatory obstacles. It remains unclear which country would be willing to acquire them.
In previous meetings between EPM and local communities, the company said that it would stop payments for land use after Jepírachi’s disconnection from the electric system. Although EPM told Mongabay that they will “take actions that promote traditional economic activities,” these have not been discussed with the communities. “I don’t know what projects they are talking about. If they are planning any kind of project, they are doing it secretly because we haven’t heard anything about it”, said Rosaura Bruges.
“The exit of Jepírachi generates fear among us. … We have been abandoned by the government. Good or bad, since the farm was built, we have had water permanently,” said Gutiérrez. “I believe we should think about the region as a whole. The impact of a project not only concerns me because I live 100 meters [325 feet] from it. In reality, the impact is extensive. We need health care, access to water, education and electricity for all.”
Banner image: The house and the restaurant of Wayuu leader Nancy Gutiérrez sit between the turbines of the Jepirachi wind farm in Kasiwoluin village, La Guajira, north of Colombia. Gutiérrez used to cook for workers in EMP, the company owning the wind farm, to provide for her and her son. Image by Antonio Cascio for Mongabay.
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