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ENERGY-LATIN AMERICA: Moving Towards Renewables

Marcela Valente* - Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 17 2010 (IPS) - Argentina is building its first solar energy park in the northwestern province of San Juan. The project calls for the manufacture of photovoltaic panels to supply the rest of the country and the other member countries of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur).

Photovoltaic power plant Credit: Imagebroker/Photo Stock

Photovoltaic power plant Credit: Imagebroker/Photo Stock

In Mexico, meanwhile, plans are under way to achieve 25 percent electricity from clean and renewable sources by 2012, mostly from wind turbines.

And Brazil is also promoting the development of sources like solar, wind and tidal power.

“Humankind is on a one-way trip. We can’t continue relying on fossil fuels, which are expensive, are running out, and have high costs arising from the carbon dioxide emissions that cause the greenhouse effect,” explained Francisco Alcoba, president of the Argentine national government’s Provincial Energy Partnership in San Juan.

This Andean province will begin construction of the San Juan I pilot photovoltaic power plant. With its 4,898 solar panels it will reach a maximum installed potential of 1.2 megawatts – energy to be sold to the national grid. This country of 40 million people currently has an electrical capacity of 22,000 megawatts.

Argentina “had isolated projects based on solar energy panels in rural areas where the electrical grid doesn’t reach, but ours is the first such power plant in the country and in South America,” said Alcoba.

The San Juan government moved to make use of the natural conditions of the province, where the sky is clear most of the year. Furthermore, the soils around the town are a natural source of high-quality quartz, from which silicon is extracted – an important element for manufacturing solar panels.

On Mar. 5, the provincial government signed a construction contract with UTE Comsa Argentina-Comsa Spain, which won the bid for the project. The authorities also want the site to serve as a research and development base that could also benefit the Mercosur trade bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).

A national legal framework established tax benefits and other incentives to promote the development of alternative energy sources, with the goal of meeting eight percent of demand by 2016.

As part of this policy, there are more calls for bids on clean energy projects. For solar, a quota was set for no less than 10 megawatts, and according to Alcoba, there are already offers for projects totalling 22.5 megawatts, also in San Juan.

Argentina is moving timidly but firmly in the direction of clean energy production, in keeping with the Green Economy Initiative, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in response to the global financial crisis.

Economist Pavan Sukhdev, of India, directs the UNEP initiative. He told Tierramérica that the countries need to think about natural capital not as a subordinate advantage, but “as a complex and valuable ecological infrastructure that provides goods and services to humanity.”

According to Sukhdev, the old thinking was that nature provided us with resources for production, but it is also a source of services that provide clean air and water, prevent floods or droughts and produce renewable energy. He stressed that if we don’t take care of this capital we won’t be able to continue producing those services.

Beyond the name “green economy,” in Latin America there are many programmes heading in that direction, among them the solar energy project in San Juan, said economist Martina Chidiak, of the Research Centre for Economic Transformation (CENIT).

“It is not about reinventing the economy, but of folding green ideas into what we are already doing,” Chidiak told Tierramérica. She and other Latin American colleagues are preparing a report for UNEP about the efficient use of the region’s resources.

“I prefer to talk about sustainable production and consumption,” less ambitious than the “green economy” but with sights set on more integrated and coherent development policies, she said.

For example, in Argentina, while there is more and more investment in renewable energy, the country continues to spend millions of dollars on subsidies for fossil fuels.

“This reveals a disconnect. That is why renewable energy is not enough. We must have a coherent programme – and financing,” she said.

Chidiak meanwhile applauded Mexico and Brazil for their advances in coordinating policies to confront climate change. The two Latin American giants have launched projects for wind, solar and biomass energy, and are also planning to manufacture the necessary technology.

Roberto Constantino, an economist with the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico, told Tierramérica that his country “has a special interest in achieving synergies between economic growth and the green economy, especially for reasons of energy security and increased technical efficiency in production.”

That explains the investments of Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission in wind energy in the region of the isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the southern state of Oaxaca, he said.

In the isthmus corridor the installed wind energy capacity is 508 megawatts, out of 51,000 megawatts of installed potential in the entire country of Mexico.

In early March, President Felipe Calderón inaugurated another wind park, La Rumorosa, near the northwestern city of Mexicali.

Calderón’s goal is for 25 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2012 – an ambitious plan for an oil-producing country that obtains 73 percent of its electricity from fossil fuel-based power plants, 22 percent from hydroelectric dams, and three percent from nuclear plants.

Mexico is looking to become a Latin American leader in this type of energy, said the president.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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