On Colombia's La Guajira Peninsula, an arid stretch of land that forms the northernmost tip of South America jutting into the Caribbean Sea, life for the indigenous Wayúu people in many ways remains as it has for centuries. The Wayúu men fish each morning, returning home to their settlements (known as "rancherías") shortly after sunrise, before the sun heats the surrounding desert to 40 degrees Celsius. The Wayúu women weave woolen shoulder bags called "mochilas," which they sell in neighboring towns. Far from the major cities of Colombia's interior, potable water is scarce in La Guajira and electricity is a luxury.

La Guajira Desert—with its flocks of scrawny goats and ubiquitous stray dogs wandering among the cacti, trupillo and other scraggly vegetation—seems an unlikely location for the country's first utility-scale wind turbine field connected to the national grid and Latin America's first megawatt-size wind power installation. Still, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), one of the country's largest utilities, chose the Wayúu territory on which to build the Jepírachi Wind Project (pdf), which went live in April 2004. Jepírachi is a pilot project of 15 Nordex N60 1.3-megawatt turbines (each 60 meters tall) standing just a few kilometers from Puerto Bolívar on the Caribbean coast, transforming 10-meter-per-second gusts into a total of 19.5 megawatts of energy.

Although Jepírachi taps less than 0.4 percent of Colombia's 600 megawatts of wind energy potential, the project's output is significant because it has initiated a way to supplement the hydropower that supplies 70 percent of the country's electricity. Droughts have repeatedly created energy supply bottlenecks, forcing the government to look for alternatives.

Other wind projects are being considered, including a 200-megawatt wind farm in the peninsula's Ipapure region and a 20-megawatt site at Joutkai, which would be close enough to Jepírachi to share the same substation feeding Colombia's national power grid. The Joutkai site is expected to include 10 Vestas Wind Systems A/S V80 turbines, each 67 meters tall and generating two megawatts of energy.*

Revenue from the Joutkai project is expected to go to Wayúu ESP, a rural service utility set up to provide basic services (electricity and potable water) to the 90,000 or so Wayúu people living in the region. Only about five percent of the desert's inhabitants have access to these services today. Water for human and animal consumption all comes from wells and has high levels of salinity. Household energy comes mostly from wood or charcoal for cooking, kerosene for lighting, and dry cell batteries for small radios.

Despite the potential to modernize their lives, or perhaps because of it, many Wayúu are leery of the wind-energy projects. EPM built Jepírachi on land previously owned and occupied by the indigenous population, and Joutkai would follow suit. The incursion of large, multinational business endeavors in La Guajira Desert, including El Cerrajón coal mine, which opened in 1983, have displaced many Wayúu families and disrupted their traditional way of life.

Overall, Latin America's enormous wind energy potential remains largely untapped. Brazil and Mexico are hoping to change this and have been the most active in building out wind turbine infrastructures. Brazil in particular has studied Europe's successful model for harnessing the wind, says Ramón Fiestas, chairman of the Global Wind Energy Council's Latin American Committee. Brazil, which produces 800 megawatts of energy via wind turbines, plans to add another 1,800 megawatts of capacity over the next five years. Mexico, which generates 600 megawatts of wind energy, is looking to raise its total capacity to 2,500 megawatts by 2014, although much of this depends on improving the country's security situation and attracting investors, Fiestas adds.

European wind farms dwarf Latin American efforts in terms of production today, but this will change dramatically if Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and other countries in the region continue their wind energy efforts. Whereas Spain generates 20,000 megawatts from wind energy and plans to double that capacity by 2020, Brazil has a capacity to produce more than 140,000 megawatts of wind energy, Fiestas says.

View a slide show of the Jepírachi Wind Project and the Wayúu

*Clarification (7/06/10): Although Vestas says it had expressed interest early in the Joutkai project, Scientific American has learned that the company is no longer involved.