Energy development in Latin America: A fine balancing act

By the Potencia correspondent

Many nations in Latin America are enjoying unprecedented economic growth, and the development of their energy sector is of key importance. But the balancing act facing these countries is how to do this in a sustainable manner that safeguards the environment and does not negatively impact on their economic growth.

The favourable social and economic current situation makes Latin American an ideal place for renewable energy development. Some argue these nations are the best place to invest in hydropower, wind, solar or tidal projects.

Although such energy sources are non-polluting, the building of the infrastructure needed, specifically in hydropower projects, can in many cases harm the environment. Controversial projects like the Belo Monte dam in Brazil are a good example of this.

Chile faces a challenge to balance its economic development “the generation of energy is key to secure this progress- and to safeguard the environment. The country’s government recently presented the National Energy Strategy, but it has been condemned by environmental groups.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera wants this programme to add over 8000 MW to the national energy production by 2020. However, environmental groups think that the strategy is too focused on hydropower projects and want the government to look for other renewable sources that do not cause potential environmental damage.

“Without clean and safe energy we will not achieve development,” the president was quoted as saying by Xinhua agency. Chile had already started to focus on coal mining resources for energy generation. Now, the new strategy pretends to take advantage of the country’s hydropower potential, which has been estimated at a capacity of 20 000 MW, according to several reports. Ecologists regret the government’s preference for hydropower and point to other clean energies like wind power and solar power as betters ways to produce electricity.

Other South American countries are trying to get push forward hydropower projects with renewable sources which are less aggressive towards the environment. In Colombia, 70 per cent of electric production comes from hydropower today. However, an article by Colombian paper La Repàƒºblica stresses the country’s potential to develop other renewable sources and highlights solar power in particular. As the country is placed in an equatorial area, the sunlight is stronger and lasts about 12 hours daily. This fact makes Colombia one of the world’s best places for solar plants.

Solar radiation average in Colombia reaches 4.5 kWh/m2. La Guajira peninsula, in the northern area is the region with the highest solar radiation levels (6 kWh/m2). Currently there are in Colombia about 78 000 solar cells that add 6 MW to the overall electricity production. The country is keen to raise the contribution of this energy source because the Western countries laws are favoring the industry and the solar cells prices continue to decline.

Like Chile, Mexico recently presented a National Energy Strategy, which covers the period 2012-2026, according to local paper Mural. The plan has many critics who think that the federal government is not making a bet for wind power.

Several studies claim that wind power is the best way to produce low-carbon energy in Mexico and the Secretaria de Energia (Sener) estimates that the country has a wind potential of 50 000 MW. About 20 000 MW could be installed by 2020. Today Mexico’s wind power capacity reaches 773 MW so there is a long way to go.

Renewable energy in Central America and the Caribbean will see a boost from the Inter-American Development Bank (BID) and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Both entities will contribute $600m for new solar projects and renovation of hydropower plant. The Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guyana and Surinam are the countries that will receive this investment, América Economàƒ­a reports.

A fine balance between the protection of the environment and development must be the key for energy projects.

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