Green energy surges in Latin America FEATURE
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Region holds staggering potential for wind, solar and geothermal power sources.

With much of its territory in the sun-drenched tropics, Latin America is gaining momentum in the green energy movement as solar- and wind-powered sources become more viable alternatives for generating electricity.

Eight Latin American nations are among the 40 countries on the latest Ernst & Young Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index, a semiannual ranking launched in 2003. China, India and the U.S. hold the top three spots, respectively, while Chile (6), Mexico (9), Argentina (12) and Brazil (15) are in the top 20.

The region of Latin America and the Caribbean has an abundance of alternative energy resources. It already produces about half of its energy from large hydroelectric dams "The region of Latin America and the Caribbean has an abundance of alternative energy resources. It already produces about half of its energy from large hydroelectric dams, and there is a lot of potential for solar, wind and geothermal sources," said Lisa Viscidi, director of the Energy, Climate Change and Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

Peta-what?

The potential is staggering: "The region's endowment of renewable resources is estimated to be around 93 PWh annually — global power demand in 2012 was 19.7 PWh," Viscidi explained. (One petawatt equals 1 billion megawatts.)

"Alternative energy can be attractive for countries in Latin America that look to diversify their electricity generation away from commodities, such as oil, which have volatile prices," Viscidi said.

Photos courtesy of Acciona Energia

The latest the Ernst & Young index placed Peru at 28 and Uruguay at 36, while Panama (38) and the Dominican Republic (39) made the list for the first time. With eight of its countries now ranked, Latin America has doubled its presence since the May 2013 index.

"Following in the footsteps of Mexico's booming renewables market, other Central American and Caribbean nations are now lining up for green energy — driven primarily by energy security risks and an increasing demand for more power," said Ben Warren, chief editor of the index.

Spain in on the action

Spain's Acciona Energia is among companies building solar and wind power plants in the region. On line since November 2016, Acciona's sprawling El Romero photovoltaic field in Chile's Atacama Desert is biggest solar plant in Latin America and one of the largest in the world. With 370 acres of solar capture surface within a 690-acre site, El Romero can produce up to 246 megawatts daily. Google buys 80 megawatts from El Romero to fully power its data center in Chile.

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In Mexico, Acciona's 168-megawatt El Cortijo wind farm, under construction in Tamaulipas state, is expected to start production in 2018. Acciona and the local Tuto Energy group plan to start construction later this year on a 227-megawatt expansion of the Puerto Libertad solar plant in Sonora state. It will be Mexico's biggest solar energy producer when it enters service in 2019. 

"Latin America is a strategic region for Acciona Energia, since it hosts some of the most active and promising markets in renewable energy, such as Chile, Mexico and Argentina, among others," said Cesar de Carlos, Acciona's development director for the Americas.

He cited advantages including high-quality renewable resources, increased power demand, regulations that promote sustainable energy, and lower costs of wind and solar alternatives.

Additionally, solar and wind generation can help smaller countries achieve energy independence from natural gas and oil imports for power generation, Viscidi said. "Furthermore, renewable energy can make electricity more accessible in rural areas that are not connected to a centralized power grid."

Carbon War Room

Concerns over climate change also contribute to the appeal, if not urgency, of clean energy sources.

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Noting that a one-meter (3.28-foot) sea level increase would threaten 80 percent of his island nation, Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis recently announced a five-year strategy to develop more renewable energy sources and reduce carbon emissions. St. Lucia is pursuing development of a 12-megawatt wind farm as part of its pledge to transition to 35 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Both countries have joined the Island Energy Program, established through Sir Richard Branson's Carbon War Room. Goals include installing 95 megawatts of renewable energy and leveraging $300 million in financing for energy projects in 10 Caribbean nations by 2020.

Climate change reduces the reliability of hydroelectric power, as a fluctuating El Niño weather pattern affects water flow and power production. New hydroelectric plants also face increased public opposition because of environmental concerns.

"Thus, non-hydro renewables are becoming more and more attractive for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean," Viscidi said.

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About Matt Bokor

Matt Bokor is a freelance writer living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.