Friday, March 25, 2011

Japan devastation: The time for renewable energy in LatAm is now

Christopher Lenton

Over the last decade, nuclear power has gained favor in Latin America. It is base load power - generating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - and in an era where climate change dominates international discussion, does not emit damaging greenhouse gasses. It can provide significant, reliable generation capacity over many decades, as Brazil's Angra, Mexico's Laguna Verde and Argentina's Embalse and Atucha facilities have proven.

And technological and regulatory advances have meant that events such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are now in the past.

Until last week.

The toll of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is still unknown, but the unfolding nuclear disaster and the news being relayed to the world - the smoke pluming from crippled reactors 3 and 4 at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the scenes of men in protective white suits scanning petrified citizens for radiation, the request of some European nations that their citizens leave Tokyo in fear of nuclear fallout, and the unprecedented address to the nation by Emperor Akihito - has cast new fears that nuclear power is, quite simply, not safe.

In Chile, where plans for atomic power development have gathered steam in recent years, the example of Japan has often been used to underline the safety of developing nuclear plants in seismic zones.

The world is now asking, if Japan can't develop safe nuclear power, who can?

Nuclear will continue to play a part in the region's energy matrix. Brazilian authorities have already come out in support of its current plans. Experts around the world are quick to point out that the Japanese reactors were unique and outdated - reactors can now be cooled without backup power generation or human input. Each form of electricity generation has an environmental impact, and large generation projects will always prove prone to disaster.

But the basic fact is with renewable power, this sort of event would not occur. As some were quick to point out, offshore and onshore wind farms in Japan survived the disaster. In Chile, renewable energy projects continued generating power in the aftermath of the February 27 quake.

The potential too in Latin America is vast. In Patagonia wind capacity factors exceed those in countries like Spain, which on certain days generates half its electricity from wind. The Atacama Desert receives more solar radiation than any other desert in the world: a study by Chile's national energy commission CNE along with German company GTZ revealed over 200GW of potential in an area of 4,000km2 in the Atacama - enough to cover the power needs of South America.

Industrializing countries need efficient, affordable power, and power demand in Latin America will surge over the next decade. Though renewable power is still seen as uneconomic in many parts of the region, we need only look at recent events to see that fossil fuel prices are unpredictable. Additionally, oil spills, coal mine and natural gas accidents, and perhaps too nuclear plant accidents will continue to have untold environmental and economic costs. But the sun, the sea, rivers, wind, these are unchanging. And thanks to the rapid development of a renewable industry in Europe and China, costs are coming down. Indeed, investors prior to the crisis saw double digit returns in the wind sector in numerous parts of the world, and solar power could be cost-competitive in as little as two years.

With the right regulatory signals, renewable energy could prove an important complement to base load power in Latin America in the next decade. The time to act is now.