Prospects for Energy Integration in Latin America

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*
 

South America’s presidents began discussing energy integration years before UNASUR made it one of its central initiatives, but these efforts have been hobbled by differences on what role the private and public sectors should play.  One tangible project that has emerged from UNASUR seeks to interconnect the electricity grids of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.  While the Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian grids (as well as that of Venezuela) are already linked, cross-border transmission of electric power is relatively insignificant.

Since the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, the UNASUR project has become part of a wider hemispheric agenda called “Connecting the Americas 2022,” which includes Panama and potentially – once the long-delayed Electrical Interconnection System for the Central American Countries (SIEPAC) becomes fully operational – all of North America.  The idea was promoted by the Colombians as hosts of the last Summit and emerged as one of the key mandates.  It seeks universal access to electricity through enhanced electrical interconnections, power sector investment, renewable energy development, and cooperation.  By focusing on electrical interconnections, the hope is to allow countries with excess power to export electricity to those facing deficits as well as permit greater integration of renewable energy resources and exchanges among countries with varying climate and seasonal needs.  Interconnection also expands the size of markets, creating economies of scale that can attract private sector investment, lower capital costs, and reduce electricity costs for consumers.  A separate initiative focuses on Brazil and the River Plate countries as well as the Caribbean.

A number of unanswered questions about “Connecting the Americas 2022” raise doubts about its viability.  For one thing, including Chile and Bolivia means that huge swaths of relatively empty territory will have to be traversed, which inevitably leads to losses of electrical power transmitted over long distances.  (The Chilean grid itself is not integrated, but divided into three separate systems.)  Furthermore, electricity generation in the Andean countries relies heavily on hydropower sourced from high mountain glaciers that are gradually disappearing as a result of climate change.  If “Connecting the Americas 2022” is to succeed, the regulatory frameworks of each participating nation must also be harmonized to facilitate long-term cooperation and network development.  Nationalistic concerns that have plagued the integrated Central American electricity network since it first came on line in the late 1990s must also be overcome.  The actual amount of electricity traded among the Central American countries has, to date, been minimal and is actually declining, as national governments have been reluctant to permit long-term contracts for the international sale of electricity that might put access to domestic electricity supplies at risk.  Such obstacles must be overcome to fulfill any vision for Latin American energy integration.

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and teaches at Stanford University.

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