Chile’s Transition to Clean Energy Matrix

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Giant wind turbines in Northern Chile

Parque Eólico Canela in Coquimbo, Chile, one of many wind-producing farms in Northern Chile. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Since Michelle Bachelet’s return to the presidency in March 2014, Chile has aggressively pursued an ambitious program to transition the country’s energy matrix toward non-conventional renewable resources.  The emphasis on non-conventional includes mini-hydro facilities with a generating capacity under 20 Megawatts, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and potentially ocean currents.  Chile aims to generate 60 percent of its electricity from domestic renewable energy resources (including all forms of hydro) by 2035, and 70 percent by 2050.  To encourage that transition, Chile is one of only two Latin American countries (the other being Mexico) to establish a carbon tax, under which energy-intensive industries and utilities that exceed mandated emissions levels are charged US$5.00 per ton of CO2 emissions.  Chile’s drive to adopt a cleaner energy matrix is motivated as much by a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it is to enhance energy security.

  • During the mid-1990s, Chile faced consecutive years of severe drought that had hugely detrimental impacts on the country’s dams, responsible at the time for around 50 percent of the country’s electricity. An abundance of natural gas in neighboring Argentina led to the construction of pipelines across the Andes and new thermal generators in Chile, but Argentina began cutting natural gas exports in 2004 (and eventually stopped them altogether) because disastrous policies there had caused domestic shortages.  Bolivia, in turn, rebuffed Santiago’s entreaties to purchase its gas unless Chile granted it territorial compensation for the loss of Bolivian access to the Pacific after the 19th century War of the Pacific.  Chile had to build two expensive receiving terminals to import Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from East Asia as well as Trinidad and Tobago.  The Chileans were also forced to use more coal and diesel, exacerbating the already precarious air quality in many Chilean cities, particularly during the winter.

In recent years, more than half of all investment in non-conventional, renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean has been directed to Chile, primarily to build solar and wind parks to supply the mining industry in the north of the country.  The shift to renewable energy has largely been financed by the private sector, with no subsidies other than reimbursement for small-scale photovoltaic and other nonconventional contributors to the grid at the full retail price (and no transmission charge).  Chile’s antipathy to subsidies reflects the country’s market-based economic orientation and a conscious decision to prioritize state-of-the-art renewable technology sourced from elsewhere rather than encourage the development of its own industry.  The recent investment boom in renewables was driven by the business-friendly climate, the fact that Chile is not a significant hydrocarbons producer, and the inflationary impact of the last three years of drought on the price of hydroelectricity.

Chile has several other things going for it in achieving its goals, including a good regulatory framework and resources that are in growing demand.  Chilean regulators allow generators to sell electricity in only one of three time blocks during the day — giving solar and wind power a competitive edge in public purchase agreement auctions.  This more than halved the bidding price offered by generators and made solar power competitive with natural gas and even electricity sourced from hydro.  In the near future, as the country’s energy matrix shifts to greater reliance on solar and wind power, Chile intends to utilize hydroelectricity to supply peaks in demand for electric power (usually in the evening hours) to make up for intermittencies in sunshine and wind.  (At the moment, fossil fuels provide that function.)  New developments in storage technology will also help.  Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium, needed to make storage batteries.  The interconnection of Chile’s northern and central grids in 2018 should also facilitate greater use of different renewables and redirect the electric power generated from them to where it is most needed.  Chile, already a leader in Latin American alternative energy production, is poised to enhance that position.

September 11, 2017

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He taught a seminar on “Energy and Climate Cooperation in the Americas: The Role of Chile” at Stanford’s Santiago campus during the summer 2017 quarter.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

Preparing the West Indies for the Demise of PetroCaribe

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

ariwriter / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

ariwriter / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The English-speaking Caribbean nations – whose heavy dependence on imported diesel and fuel oil to generate electricity has placed them among the most heavily indebted countries in the world (on a per capita basis) – will face massive headaches if PetroCaribe collapses.  They eagerly signed up for the Venezuelan initiative, which sells them petroleum with one- or two-year grace periods and long repayment schedules ranging from 15 to 25 years at 1 or 2 percent interest.  Participating countries can even pay with products or services in lieu of hard currency.  In the case of Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Eastern Caribbean mini-states, PetroCaribe’s financing scheme represents an estimated 4 to 7 percent of their annual GDP.  The worsening economic turmoil in Venezuela, however, raises serious concerns about PetroCaribe’s future.  According to recent media reports, PdVSA, the Venezuelan national petroleum company, is shortening repayment periods and increasing interest rates.

No doubt this is one reason why the Obama administration launched the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative (CESI) in June.  CESI seeks to diversify the Caribbean’s energy matrix away from its current heavy reliance on fossil fuels by using Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) loans and credit guarantees to encourage private sector investment in renewable energy.  It is premised upon the Caribbean’s huge potential to generate energy from the sun, wind, geothermal sources, and maritime currents.  In the past, the principal bottlenecks to harnessing these abundant resources have been hefty startup costs and small populations that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the private sector to recover profits within a reasonable period of time.  Although the initial capital investment for solar- and wind-based technology has dropped considerably in the last few years, it is unrealistic to expect Caribbean nations to make a full switch to renewable energy resources anytime soon.  A more realistic, short- to medium-term alternative is to make greater use of natural gas.  Although still a fossil fuel, gas is more efficient – and therefore the generated electricity is less costly – than fuel oil and diesel.  Moreover, electricity generated from natural gas emits 70 percent as much carbon dioxide as oil, per unit of energy output.

The shale gas boom in the United States generated by innovations in hydraulic fracturing has led to calls to lift restrictions on U.S. natural gas exports to those countries with which it does not have a free trade agreement.  The Caribbean is potentially a major target market of this natural gas in liquefied form (LNG), but this would be a big mistake.  Lifting restrictions on exports will inevitably raise natural gas prices in the U.S., thereby hurting consumers and putting the nascent revival of domestic manufacturing at risk.  It would also require building expensive LNG offloading and regassification facilities in the West Indies, which would run up against the same economies of scale limitations (except in Jamaica and Hispañola) that have undermined a mass transition to renewable energy.  A more realistic alternative is to revive plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Trinidad and Tobago to Barbados, and then up through the Eastern Caribbean.  Proposed back in the early 2000s, it was scuttled with the appearance of PetroCaribe in 2005.  Trinidad and Tobago has ample reserves of natural gas; at one point before the shale gas revolution it was the largest source of imported LNG in the United States.  The pipeline would link islands with populations of under 100,000, where LNG is economically unviable, with the more densely populated French dominions of Guadalupe and Martinique.  It would also help revive the floundering Caribbean Common Market and Community (CARICOM).

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.