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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.

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