By Juan Nicastro
In Argentina there are positive signs and concrete steps toward a transition in energy production that leaves oil behind, but there is a risk of innovating without addressing the underlying problem. One key is to discuss why energy is needed: to satisfy the enormous demand from a consumption-based society, or with the hope of changing the energy system and social model, looking to consume less? The debate is just starting.
In the Argentine energy matrix, more than 90 percent of energy comes from fossil fuels, primarily gas, oil, and a small amount of coal. Electricity is generated mainly through combustion (thermal power plants), 30 percent from dams, 6 percent from nuclear power and less than 2 percent from renewable sources, according to the Department of Energy.
According to the Argentine Association for Renewable Energy and Environment, that “less than 2 percent” produced by renewable energy amounts to 553 Mw installed, of which 427 Mw are generated with mini hydroelectric plants, 65 Mw with wind farms, 58 Mw from biomass (wood), and only 1.2 Mw with solar panels.
Passed in December 2007, Law 26190 declares the generation of power from renewable resources of national interest and states that by 2016, 8 percent of national consumption will be supplied by renewable energy.
Carlos Saint James, founder and president of the Argentine Renewable Energy Chamber, told Latinamerica Press he feels “clearly optimistic, because of the abundance of resources we have in our country. If we look at a world map of wind, all the wind is in our Patagonia. If it’s solar energy we seek, northwestern Argentina has very high potential.”
To achieve the goal of 8 percent, Saint James says that “within five years, US$5.5 billion should be invested,” and he believes that wind power will get bigger because “there is very high profitability there.”
Examples of energy renovation
For Sergio Vera, researcher at the University of General Sarmiento and part of the Solar-powered Refrigerators research team — a project between the university, the National Institute of Agricultural Technology, or INTA, the National Institute of Industrial Technology, or INTI, and the Campesino Movement of Córdoba — “the reality is that the energy crisis is strong and we are years away from developing clean energy in Argentina. If we compare the situation with other countries or laws worldwide, we are a ways off, but the path is there.”
Already in place are programs like the Renewable Energy in the Rural Market Project, or PERMER, and Renewable Energy Generation, or GENREN. The first is geared towards supplying power to a significant number of people living in rural households and about 6,000 public services of all types (schools, emergency rooms, police stations, etc.) that are outside the reach of power distribution centers. The second seeks to promote the allocation of contracts for 15 years of power from renewable sources for a total 1,015 Mw. The projects presented by 22 companies exceed the power demand by 40 percent and include energy from wind, thermal with biofuels, photovoltaic solar, mini hydroelectric, biomass and biogas.
And there are many more examples of renewable energy projects that are already implemented in the country.
On a plain in Patagonia near the city of Neuquén rise, separated by a few meters, several prototypes of small and medium wind turbines. It is a test park where about 20 independent manufacturers try out their creations, with technical support from the state. In a short time, the improvements identified and implemented will enable greater market penetration.
In the province of La Rioja is the Arauco wind farm, the largest in the country. The first phase of the project has 12 turbines with the ability to produce 25.2 Mw. By early 2012, another line of 12 windmills will double its generating capacity, with a total output of 50.4 Mw.
A group of farmers in northern Córdoba works closely with university researchers and state technicians to install new prototypes for solar-powered refrigerators and has been able to maintain goat’s milk cold in areas not serviced by the power grid.
A black tank 3 meters high by 3 meters wide looks like a water tank, but it is really the central component of a bio-gas generator. When decomposing organic waste releases methane gas, it accumulates inside then circulates through a network and is ultimately used for heating or cooking needs. Generators of this type are multiplying in Argentina in both private and public settings.
In the province of San Juan, along the Andes, is the first solar energy park in the country — an unprecedented project in Latin America which began in 2009 and generates 1.2 Mw through its almost 5,000 panels spread out over 6 hectares (15 acres).
But at the same time, as part of the Ministry of Energy’s Argentine Energy Strategy, there has been a renewal of the Argentine Nuclear Plan and the consequent growth in nuclear power, which is criticized by the environmentalist sector that asks for the cessation of nuclear energy generation, especially given what happened at the Fukushima, Japan, nuclear reactor in the wake of the tsunami last March. The anti-nuclear movement in Argentina isn’t new. In 1990, the construction of a nuclear waste dump in Gastre, in the province of Chubut, was stopped due to the resistance shown by those who oppose the development of this type of energy in Argentina.
A necessary debate
Argentina is taking steps forward on a path toward clean and renewable energy; nevertheless, there are those who say that to achieve real change would require going a step further.
“But to really make progress you have to hit a raw nerve,” Roque Pedace, master in Science and Technology Policy and Management and researcher at the University of Buenos Aires told Latinamerica Press.
“If a transition is to be made, other strong players are going to be affected, like the auto industry or mining, which is a primary consumer. The Argentina proposed by those of us who talk about renewable energy won’t be the same as the one now. It’s not about the same thing happening with renewable energy as when fossil fuels were being used, and that’s it…”
Pedace said that in Argentina it would be possible to reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 and live off of renewable resources, combined with taking land management measures, reforestation and increasing the amount of carbon incorporated into agricultural areas, for example, with investments that are not impossible and work towards other social goals as well as supporting family farming and improving food sovereignty.
But for him as for many others who aspire to change the energy mix in conjunction with changing social model looking to consume less, Argentina’s society should evaluate what their real needs are, which would imply a broad discussion and probably a number of conflicts.
“For the transition to be fair, some consumption will have to decrease. But more important than that is the change in the pattern of production and consumption. Unfortunately, public policies continue to encourage people to buy more cars,” concludes Pedace.