Southern Cone: Rapid Transition to Non-Conventional Renewable Energy

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Edificio Alexander

Edificio Alexander, a building in Punta del Este, Uruguay, that produces wind energy on its roof. / Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr / Creative Commons

South America’s Southern Cone is undertaking a transition to non-conventional, renewable energy resources – that is, production not dependent on fossil fuels or large-scale hydropower – that creates the opportunity for a historic regional consensus on energy policy.  Uruguay and Chile are at the forefront.  Both lack significant fossil fuel reserves and have experienced crises when droughts detrimentally impacted hydro-supplied electricity.  For them, the rapid shift to other forms of domestically sourced renewables is as much a means to guarantee energy security as to combat climate change.  Approximately a third of Uruguay’s electricity is currently generated from wind power (up from only one percent as recently as 2013).  Similarly, about a third of Chile’s electric power – depending on the time of day – is sourced from the sun and the wind.

  • Brazil has also made significant strides in incorporating wind, and to a lesser degree, solar power into its energy matrix. The primary motivation is the need to offset carbon emissions from the burning of rain forests and the country’s greater use of natural gas.  Brazil has long enjoyed the cleanest energy of any large economy in the world because of its heavy reliance on hydropower, which still covers some two-thirds of the country’s electric needs.  Brazil was also a pioneer in the development of more environmentally friendly sugar-based ethanol (as opposed to corn favored in U.S. ethanol production); most passenger vehicles today have flex-fuel engines.  Paraguay gets almost all its electricity from hydropower (and exports the bulk of what it produces).
  • Argentina, while increasing exploitation of its large shale gas and oil reserves, in 2017 expanded renewable energy projects nearly 800 percent over the previous year, according to reports. President Mauricio Macri has created a more inviting investment climate for the private sector, rapidly increasing natural gas output, especially from the Vaca Muerta shale reserves in Patagonia.  He is also encouraging the expansion of renewable energy beyond large hydro by, among other things, allowing long-term power purchase agreements in U.S. dollars as a hedge against currency devaluations.  Furthermore, large industrial consumers face penalties if they do not meet increasing thresholds set for renewable energy use.  Current laws require that at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from non-conventional renewables by the end of 2025, and they include tax exemptions, import duty waivers, and a special trust fund called FODER, created in 2016, to provide subsidized loans and other assistance.

The rapid expansion of the renewable energy sector in the Southern Cone will enable countries to export excess production to their neighbors, facilitated by a robust regulatory framework to facilitate the cross-border trade in energy resources.  In addition, by creating a fully integrated regional market in renewable energy products, a crucial backup is established for resources such as wind and solar power that are inevitably prone to interruptions during the day.  It would also mitigate the impact of droughts on hydro-generated electricity, which are likely to worsen with global climate change.  Accordingly, there are strong incentives to revive efforts begun by MERCOSUR in the late 1990s to integrate energy markets that collapsed with the Argentine energy crisis at the start of the 21st century.  The fact that all the Southern Cone governments are now ideologically aligned in favor of market-oriented economic and investment policies facilitates achieving a regional consensus on energy for the first time.  Governments in the region now need to move beyond the discussion phase to turn all this into a concrete reality.

October 19, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and currently teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto and Santiago, Chile.

Replicating the U.S. Shale Gas Revolution in Latin America

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Photo credit: Energy Information Administration / / Public domain

World Shale Gas Map / Photo credit: Energy Information Administration / / Public domain

The shale gas revolution in the United States promises not only to soon make the country energy self- sufficient but also serve as the catalyst for a major revival of manufacturing.  Similar high hopes have been raised for Latin America, where some of the planet’s largest reserves of shale gas are found.  According to U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates, Argentina is said to have the world’s second largest reserves of technically recoverable shale gas (China is first).  The United States is currently in fourth place, followed by Canada and Mexico.  Brazil is in tenth place, with Chile and Paraguay not far behind.  The possibility that Latin America can pursue a successful shale gas strategy, however, is tempered by a number of important legal and/or geological differences that can serve as important bottlenecks.  In addition, the region’s tumultuous politics often get in the way of implementing policies that boost investment and encourage a highly productive energy sector.

The most important legal difference is that subsoil rights belong to the above ground property owner in the United States, while everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere the government (national, state or provincial) is the owner.  Developers have had an easier time purchasing access to shale gas deposits from individual landowners throughout the United States.  This explains, in great measure, why Canada’s significant shale gas reserves have not been as extensively exploited as in the United States, despite a hydrocarbons regime receptive to private-sector investment.  In addition, environmental protection legislation that impacts the shale gas industry is fractured among Federal, state, and local government authorities in the U.S.  That has facilitated developers extracting waivers and more lenient treatment in the United States that would be harder to obtain in most Latin American nations, where environmental protection is the exclusive or predominant prerogative of the central government.  Furthermore, current technology for extracting natural gas from shale reserves demands huge amounts of water, a resource that is scarce in those regions of Mexico, for example, where most of its extensive shale gas reserves are located.

Political realities are the most crucial (and often overlooked) factor that can easily undermine any effort to develop Latin America’s extensive shale gas reserves.  On paper, Argentina should be a regional energy powerhouse, supplying not only its own energy needs but those of its neighbors. However, the country has for years pursued policies that have scared off private-sector investment, heightened Argentine dependence on foreign energy imports, and led to a steady hemorrhaging of hard currency reserves.  To outsiders these policies appear illogical, but they make perfect sense to Argentine political leaders trying to consolidate their power base.  Mexico is an example of a country constrained by its Constitution from developing its extensive off-shore hydrocarbon resources.  Any political party that tries to make major amendments to those constitutional provisions, however, risks annihilation at the polls.  Brazil’s recent adoption of nationalistic legislation to encourage the domestic manufacturing of hydrocarbon-related technology could well impede exploiting its shale gas reserves if similar mandates are created for the highly specialized and capital-intensive hydrofracking equipment the industry utilizes.  In fact the only Latin American country where the stars seem aligned to repeat the U.S. shale gas success story is investor-friendly, politically-stable, energy-starved, and free-market oriented Chile, whose shale gas reserves are concentrated in the remote, under populated (and very wet) far south of the country that desperately seeks new opportunities to promote local economic development.  

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