Latin America: leading the way on renewables?

Several countries are standing out in certain sectors, a high proportion of the region’s energy mix comes from renewables, and unconventional sources including geothermal and tidal energy are being developed.

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Image via El Dínamo.

Recent stories emerging from Latin America are fuelling enthusiasm and optimism among climate campaigners and renewable energy advocates, as the region begins to establish itself as a potential leader in the development of greener energy systems, a vital step if the world is to limit its carbon emissions to levels low enough to prevent runaway climate change.

Earlier this month, heads were raised across the globe after a study revealed that Uruguay was on course to obtaining a third of its energy needs from wind power by 2016, which would place it at the top of the world rankings ahead of more established leaders in this particular form of renewable energy, such as Denmark, Portugal and Spain, and well ahead of the United Kingdom.

The survey, carried out by the Uruguayan renewables firm SEG Ingeniería, suggested that the country would have 1.2GW of installed capacity from wind farms, producing some 3.7TWh per year. Uruguay’s total energy demand in 2013 was 10.3TWh, and is projected to rise to 11.2TWh by 2016.

The rise in electricity generation from wind sources is part of a wider programme being carried out by Uruguay, through its public utilities firm UTE, which it hopes will see 90% of the country’s energy needs met via renewable means within the next two years or so. The majority of its electricity is already produced from hydroelectric sources, but recent droughts – which could well worsen over the years as a result of climate change – mean that it occasionally has to turn to more expensive and polluting back-up fossil fuel plants, or to imports from neighbouring Argentina.

Uruguay is set to become the leading country in the world for wind power as a percentage of its overall electricity demand. Photo via Infolatam.

Meanwhile, over on the Pacific coast, Chile has been making waves for some time over its apparent potential for a number of non-conventional renewables, including solar – both photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) –, tidal, and geothermal. The vast Atacama Desert, which receives barely any rain all year round, provides near-perfect conditions for the expansion of solar power projects, according to numerous experts and studies. It has already become the beacon of Latin America in this sector, driven by a favourable investment climate, although it still has some way to go before it can match the performance of countries such as Germany, which recently generated half its midday energy needs from solar power.

In other areas, Chile’s long coastline stretching over 3,000km from the Atacama down to Tierra del Fuego means that it has considerable potential for the development of tidal energy. While very little energy is currently generated from this source, studies have been carried out into the feasibility of doing so in the future, with some suggesting that it could be a leading energy source. According to the Asociación Chilena de Energías Renovables (ACERA – Chilean Association for Renewable Energy), Chile is among the five countries in the world with the greatest potential for tidal energy, and estimates of its overall potential reach as high as 240,000GW – roughly 13 times its current energy needs. The greatest potential can be found in the southern Maule region, where energy production could apparently reach 50kW per metre of coastline.

Given that Chile is also one of the most seismically active countries in the world, experts have also wondered for some time whether geothermal power could be a significant contributor to energy production. While at present this source remains mainly untapped in Chile, thousands of miles to the north several other Latin American countries have been able to develop significant geothermal energy systems.

El Salvador and Costa Rica lead the way, but Nicaragua has its sights set on overtaking these two and providing the bulk of its needs from geothermal energy, again largely thanks to its abundance of volcanoes. It is said to have a potential geothermal capacity of 1.5GW, more than its current overall energy needs (1.3GW), but only a tenth of this has been taken advantage of thus far, through two plants. Experts call Nicaragua a ‘renewables paradise’, thanks to its geothermal capacity as well as exposure to the Caribbean sun and wind, as well as plenty of free-flowing rivers. It hopes to generate 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

A solar farm in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The South American country is leading the way in solar-powered energy generation in the region. Photo via El Dínamo.

Elsewhere across the region, Latin American countries are doing more than their fair share of decarbonising their power grids, certainly when compared to many ‘Western’ nations. Brazil, by far Latin America’s largest economy with over a third of its inhabitants, generates as much as 80% of its energy from hydroelectric power, while other major countries such as Colombia (70%), Peru (50%), and Argentina (40%) also have a solid record when it comes to generating electricity by means other than fossil fuels. Mexico, the region’s second largest economy, currently generates just 20% of its energy from renewable sources, but the government is expecting this figure to rise to 33% by 2018.

However, in recent years doubts have been raised over the extent to which hydroelectric power is really ‘green’ and ‘clean’. Protests against major projects such as those against Belo Monte in Brazil and HidroAysén in Chile prove how hydroelectric dams are liable to cause huge environmental and social damage. Meanwhile, research is also beginning to show that large hydroelectric projects – particularly those in tropical countries – can actually result in enormous amounts of carbon emissions due to the effects of deforestation, the flooding associated with the construction of dams, and the alteration of hydrological cycles.

With this in mind, governments are looking to diversify further, whether into emerging renewable sources such as solar and wind, or by replacing traditional dam-based hydroelectric projects with smaller run-of-the-river ‘mini-hydro’ systems, which have much smaller impacts on the local environment.

The fact remains, though, that Latin America is already a pioneering region when it comes to developing energy systems powered by renewable sources. This is allowing governments across the continent to ensure reliable and sustainable electricity for their populations, while also keeping up their end of the bargain when it comes to global efforts to curb carbon emissions and mitigate against climate change.

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