Welcome to the FOCAL archive
The Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL) is no longer in operation. This website documents FOCAL's activities and accomplishments throughout its existence. Thank you for your interest in the work of FOCAL.
FOCAL Views: Seeking out energy security
In the face of Japan’s nuclear disaster, Latin America examines its own sources of power.
The crisis following the March 11 earthquake that devastated Japan was a frightening reminder of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, leading governments and citizens worldwide to re-evaluate their nuclear power plans. Latin America was no exception.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was quick to ditch a partnership signed with Russia last year to develop a nuclear power plant, while Peruvian President Alan García said his country would remain nuclear-free for 100 years. The repudiation was not universal, though, and the region’s members of the nuclear club —Argentina, Brazil and Mexico— defended their reactors’ safety. Chile, meanwhile, signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with the U.S. ahead of President Barack Obama’s state visit on March 21. While President Sebastián Piñera’s government has insisted the agreement is about training nuclear engineers and not about establishing nuclear plants, this hasn’t satisfied citizens and opposition parties concerned about the potential consequences of nuclear power for their country, located on the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire and no stranger to catastrophic earthquakes. Obama was thus welcomed by 2,000 protesters who took to Santiago’s streets to voice their disapproval.
The question remains though: If not nuclear power, then what?
In Chile, there are plans to build a dozen coal-fired power plants to fuel the country’s metals industry, including a 2,400- megawatt plant that will be the continent’s largest. However, coal is a major source of carbon emissions and its extraction also costs human lives: almost 100 coal miners died in Colombia, a major coal exporter, in 2010, and more than 25 have already perished in accidents this year.
Chile is a net energy importer, and a frustrated one after neighbouring Argentina began restricting natural gas exports in 2004, violating a state-to-state treaty. Argentina suffered its own shortages after Bolivian President Evo Morales cut exports of natural gas following nationalization in 2006.
This demonstrates that domestic priorities trump regional markets, and a lack of independent regulators stands in the way of increased regional energy integration. The temptation of resource nationalism is strong in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, among other countries.
Latin America, like other developing regions, must meet a rapidly growing energy demand at low cost, and do so while limiting carbon emissions. There are still 50 million people living without reliable or affordable access to electricity in the region. According to the Inter- American Development Bank, regional energy demand will have increased 75 per cent by 2030, requiring a 145 per cent increase in energy capacity. Development and poverty reduction depend on meeting that demand, and nuclear power is a potentially inexpensive option for energy-dependent countries, without coal’s harmful emissions.
Even more promising is the development of biofuels. Brazil is poised to become an energy superpower thanks to its sugar cane-based ethanol —as well as hydroelectricity and newly discovered offshore oil. The biofuels it produces are remarkably clean, as sugar-based ethanol generates two-fifths of the carbon emissions of petrol and half that of corn-based ethanol. Flex-fuel cars that can run on either petrol or ethanol are driving demand: they currently make up half of Brazil’s automobiles and could reach 90 per cent in 2017. Brazil is already yielding benefits from its effective energy mix: The Luz Para Todos (Light For All) program, launched by then-energy minister Dilma Rousseff, has hooked up almost 2.5 million homes since 2003.
Biofuels production has its drawbacks too, however, namely its impact on food production and prices, deforestation, and biodiversity. What is needed is an environmentally sound plan that recognizes increasing demand and continuing reliance on traditional energy sources.
China understands Latin America’s untapped energy potential and has secured at least $65 billion in deals for oil and refineries in Latin America since 2010; it has even proposed a $7.6 billion rail line or “dry canal” through Colombia to circumvent the Panama Canal, which cannot accommodate large tankers. Perhaps we too should recognize the region’s production capacity and put our hemisphere’s energy security at the top of the priority list.