Issue of July, 14, 2002
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Alternative Energy - Still a Distant Dream
By Diego Cevallos

Latin America is far from meeting the target of obtaining 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2010, the proposal it will set forth at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa.

MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- Clean sources of energy like solar and wind power account for less than one percent of the electricity consumed in Latin America and the Caribbean, which continue to depend heavily on oil, just as they did 30 years ago.

However, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio+10), to be held Aug 26-Sep 4 in South Africa, governments from this region will ask the world, on Brazil's initiative, to undertake the commitment that 10 percent of all energy consumed will come from clean sources within a decade.

But experts warn that it will be an uphill task.

In 2000, energy consumption in Latin America and the Caribbean increased 1.75 percent, headed by petroleum, while carbon dioxide emissions per person rose 0.38 percent, according to the Latin American Energy Organization.

Fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which scientists blame for global warming.

But clean energy is more costly, greater efforts to develop alternative sources are needed, and the region's "traditions and infrastructure" continue to favor fossil fuels, notes a study by the Organization of American States' Renewable Energy in the Americas Initiative.

There is little room for renewable energy sources to compete in the market when institutional frameworks are designed to favor traditional sources, Sara Larraín, director of the Sustainable Chile Program, told Tierramerica.

"In one day, humanity uses the same amount of fossil fuels that it took nature around one million years to produce," and "if that weren't enough, global consumption of such sources increased around 1,500 times in the 20th century," said Mexico City Environment Minister Claudia Sheinbaun.

Clean energy sources include small-scale hydropower, wind power, solar energy, systems designed to harness the energy of the ocean, controlled burning of biomass (wood, agricultural waste products), extraction of ethanol from sugar cane, and biogas produced by the fermentation of organic waste.

Although the region has begun to develop many of these alternative sources, with the backing of national governments, the United Nations and the private sector, they are only small-scale initiatives.

Some are highly original, like the use of sugar cane residue or bagasse in El Salvador. Since 1999, El Salvador's Empresa Eléctrica del Norte has been transforming an average of 27 million tons of bagasse into 5 megawatts a day of electricity, sufficient to meet the needs of 30,000 clients.

In the southern Argentine city of Comodoro Rivadavia, the harnessing of wind power supplies up to 30 percent of the energy needs of the city's 150,000 inhabitants.

Projects in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala are also using solar panels and windmills.

In addition, laws have been passed and programs designed in the past few years to foment the development of clean energy sources in Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua, as part of the Renewable Energy in the Americas Initiative.

But the region's fragile economies create obstacles to that goal.

"Although Argentina had created a strong juridical framework, the situation is disastrous now" due to the economic crisis, and there is no longer any possibility of investing in renewable sources, Juan Carlos Villalonga, the head of the Greenpeace energy campaign in Argentina, told Tierramerica.

Under new legislation passed last year, a percentage of electricity rates was to go into a fund for the development of wind power. But when the economy collapsed, the fund was diverted to servicing the foreign debt.

In Mexico, where the government of Vicente Fox inaugurated six petroleum-powered thermoelectric plants in 2001, despite the protests of environmentalists, a mere 0.004 percent of energy comes from alternative sources.

Legal reforms proposed by the Fox administration, aimed at drawing private investment into the energy sector, do not include incentives for developing alternative sources.

In Venezuela, although the government enthusiastically supports the proposal of the 10 percent renewable energy quota, no plans towards that end have been designed.

"As a state policy, we have defended the possibility of alternative energy sources, and in practice, 60 percent of energy used in Venezuela is hydropower, which means it is clean," Venezuelan Environment Minister Ana Elisa Osorio told Tierramerica.

Although large hydropower plants do not emit toxic gases, environmentalists do not consider them green technology because they entail drastic modifications of the environment by damming up and changing the course of rivers.

In Venezuela, which has an estimated 66 years in reserves of crude, the use of alternative energy is so scant that it does not even figure in the statistics.

The same is true in Chile, where the director of the Sustainable Chile Program said her country "is moving backwards" in that field. "We are actually backtracking with respect to the question of cleaner fuels," said Larraín.

But the region's leaders have not been put off, and plan to get the Río+10 summit to adopt a binding pledge for 10 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2010.

* The author is an IPS correspondent. Marcela Valente/Argentina, Gustavo González/Chile, Blanca Abarca/El Salvador and Andrés Cañizález/Venezuela also collaborated in writing this article.

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