Clean energy no longer optional

Latin America Press

Abandoning fossil fuels is a long-term task, but unavoidable.

Milagros Salazar

The Peruvian government´s environmental policies are teetering on suicidal. The number of cars grows exponentially every year, mining and hydrocarbon companies receive concessions that include key water sources and forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate.  “The world can´t take any more abuse. We´re going to have a big bill to pay,” said Pedro Gamio, Peru´s former deputy energy minister.

Gamio, the current regional director of GVEP International for Latin America and the Caribbean, and many others from scientists to environmentalists to business executives, say Peru should take advantage of its renewable energy potential to do its part to slow the environmental crisis, by using solar, wind and hydropower.

While some brush off the view as apocalyptic, Peruvian economist Óscar Ugarteche says that the financial crisis that began in the United States two years ago has brought to light unsustainable models — both economic and environmental.

“While we don´t replace the burning of fossil fuels with clean energy on a massive scale, we cannot speak with certainty about the recovery of the global economy,” he wrote in the article “The Epidemic Started in the United States,” which was published by Oxfam´s annual report on Poverty, Inequality and Development 2008-2009.   Gamio says oil reserves will be tapped in 45 years, sending its price soaring. Replacing this contaminating and limited fuel is compulsory to ensure energy supply.

President Alan García, who has made an aggressive push to open up the country´s Amazon to oil and gas exploration and drilling, told the United Nations General Assembly this September that unconventional energy sources will account for 40 percent of Peru´s supply by 2021, but is this possible?

Slow going

Nearly three-quarters of Peru´s energy supply — for electricity, transportation and industrial use — comes from fossil fuels: 44 percent from oil and 29 percent of natural gas.

According to Peruvian government, 23 percent of the energy comes from “renewable” sources, if hydropower is included, though this source has environmental and social costs.  Five percent of Peru´s electricity demand of 4,400 megawatts a year must be covered by renewable resources such as wind, solar and biomass power, according to Peruvian legislation.

Jaime Gianella, head of Monder, a technology company focused on the agriculture industry and biomass, says Peru has a great potential to use biomass to produce even more power. Between 2000 and 2007, sugar and cotton waste produced 70,000 terajoules, each one equal to 278 megawatt hours.

He says that waste could supply an 859 megawatt plant for 7,000 hours a year, almost equal to the Mantaro power plant in Peru´s central Andes, the main supplier of the capital, Lima, which has a population of 9 million people.

“This is about using what´s thrown away in the fields and not deforesting. That would be abhorrent,” said Gianella.  The largest cost for renewable energy is its installation, and profit potential is one of the main concerns when switching over.

Specialist Javier Coello says renewable energy maintenance costs, large- or small-scale, are lower than fossil-fuel based methods because the use of the power supply — the sun, wind, or geothermal — are free.

Controversial power

Peru´s government is also considering biofuels as an alternative to oil, though some experts warn that monoculture, particularly of palm to produce ethanol, will harm biodiversity in the Amazon Basin and promote deforestation in the name of clean energy.  A symbolic case is in Barranquita, in the northeastern San Martin department, where the powerful Romero group has deforested 3,000 hectares of primary forest for palm.

Since 2007, the government established the mandatory use of biofuels in small proportions: 2% biodiesel mixed with diesel by 2009 and 5% by 2011, and 7.8% ethanol mixed with gasoline by 2010. In other words, these source of energy “do not compete with fossil fuels, but rather are a kind of additives,” adds Coello.

Director of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, proposes an environmental study of the benefits of biofuels to clearly determine their economic, energy, environmental and social implications.

Similarly, the construction of dams in the Amazon is no longer considered a push for green energy, since the flooding of forests generates quantities of methane 20 times more contaminating than carbon dioxide emissions.

For engineer Alfredo Novoa, director of the nongovernmental organization ProNaturaleza, the social and environmental costs of dams in Peru´s Amazon are too high, and the potential of 22,000 megawatts which can be produced in the Andes and the coast by wind power is sufficient.

Many small-scale renewable energy products could significantly improve supplies for small communities, according to research by Soluciones Prácticas-ITDG, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on rural, low-income communities.

Fernando Acosta, who heads the organization´s biofuel area, says 52 small-scale hydroplants that generate between 10 and 30 kilowatts an hour have significantly helped communities in the northern highlands of Cajamarca.  There is no one way to produce clean energy, and efficiency and costs need to be weighed, as well as social, economic and environmental factors.

“You have to awaken in the citizenry and authorities an environmental conscience,” said Gamio. “Peru has to maintain a coherent policy to adapt and mitigate climate change. There must be a correlation with what the president is offering the world and what his officials are doing inside the country.” —Latinamerica Press.