Latin America Moves Forward with Renewable Energy

By Steve Weissman

You don’t need to convince the farmers in Bolivia’s Altiplano that their climate is changing, as weather patterns and drought become consistently more severe. Glaciers have retreated. Snow pack is short-lived. People living and working in these communities have no confidence that sufficient water will return to support plants and animals. Dramatic life changes in that region are no longer a question of “if”. The remaining questions are: Can they adapt? And if so, what does the future look like?

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Alto y plano: the Bolivian high planes, with the Huayna Potosí mountain in the background. (Photo by Orlando Contreras López.)

But when it comes to the specter of challenges stemming from a changing climate, Latin America is expansive enough to have it all. While a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise appears to be locked in, scientists and planners try to imagine what even higher temperatures might bring to the region. According to the World Bank, with a four degree temperature rise,

  • Almost all land area in the region – 90% – would likely be subject to heat events that are currently experienced only every 700 years.
  • The Amazon basin and many highly inhabited areas would be expected to experience extreme droughts.
  • The Andean glaciers would be gone by the end of the century. Glacial melt would at first raise the risks of floods and then result in drought for the communities that depend on them.
  • Category 4 or 5 hurricanes might occur more frequently and more powerfully. This, together with a one meter sea-level rise, would have devastating impacts, especially on the Caribbean.
  • A 4 degree world would mean that Rio de Janeiro and Barranquilla would have to cope with a massive 1.4 meter rise in sea level.

Although the people of Latin America have their neighbors to the north to thank for much of this, there is no debating the fact that applying the breaks to global temperature rise requires every nation to do its part. And the people of Latin America get it. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2015, while only 45% of those in the United States were very concerned about climate change, the numbers to the south look like this:

Percentage of People Very Concerned About Climate Change 

  • Brazil         86%
  • Chile          77%
  • Peru           75%
  • Venezuela  72%
  • Mexico       66%
  • Argentina   57%

The good news is that much of Latin America is fertile ground for extensive renewable energy development – a critical ingredient in any effort to phase out fossil fuels. According to Mario Guillen, of the Wharton School of Business, for investors in the renewable energy sector, “Latin America is huge opportunity. It is a large part of the world with [over] 600 million people.” Recently, Mexico and Chile have joined Brazil among the 10 largest renewable energy markets on the planet. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Brazil, which historically generated 40% of its power from large-scale hydroelectric facilities, has been steadily adding non-hydro renewables to the mix. Onshore wind and bioenergy have led the way. Meanwhile, Mexico has been adding hundreds of megawatts of wind power capacity per year, while Uruguay and Panama have significantly added wind power. Geothermal power is popular in Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, while solar power has seen significant growth recently in Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay.

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Canela Wind Energy Park, Mexico. (Photo by Edu3k.)

This steady growth in renewable power deployment has not happened by accident. IRENA counts over 300 policies, scattered across almost all Latin American countries, supporting renewable energy development. Twelve countries conduct auctions to attract renewable power sellers. Thirteen countries have policies ensuring grid access for new projects. Various countries offer tax incentives, “net metering” credit for customer-side renewable power fed back into the grid, renewable fuel mandates, and projects directly funded by government.

IRENA points out that policies and programs differ across the Latin American states. This helps make the region a laboratory for designing better policy initiatives. And as more and more renewable energy projects take hold, the job creation benefits of renewables will become all the more obvious. As the sector develops, the companies providing the wind turbines and installing the photovoltaic arrays will speak with a stronger voice to help ensure program continuation.

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Solar panels in Chile. (Photo courtesy of Rainer Lippert.)

Renewable power is just part of any successful effort to decarbonize energy use in Latin America. It must be coupled with programs designed to phase out the use of fossil fuels more directly – through caps on carbon emissions, moratoria on new fossil-fueled power plants, and well-executed plans to reduce the use of fossil fuels across all sectors. The progress to-date among so many Latin American nations is a great starting point. As the cost of renewables continues to fall, the region should witness continued renewable energy growth.

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STEVE WEISSMAN is currently a lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. He spent ten years creating and directing the Energy Law program at Berkeley Law, where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), where he was an administrative law judge. He also served as policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners at the PUC. He is an energy and environmental attorney, and an environmental mediator.

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