In terms of its sensible drug laws, policies on same-sex marriage and abortion, Uruguay is arguably the most progressive country in Latin America. Now we can add an extraordinary claim of a near-total switch in terms of electricity generation from fossil fuels to renewable sources.
According to Uruguay’s national director of energy, Ramón Méndez, 94.5 percent of Uruguay’s electricity is now generated from clean sources like hydropower, wind, solar and biomass. By the end of 2014, total energy usage in the country reached 55 percent renewables, compared to a global average of just 12 percent.
Uruguay achieved this lofty goal without the help of government subsidies or increasing electricity tariffs. In fact, when inflation is factored in electricity costs have even decreased.
True sustainability or a symbolic gesture?
While Uruguay is a small country with a population of just over 3.3 million, this is still an impressive achievement. In comparison, neighboring Argentina, which recently set a goal of producing 8 percent clean electricity by 2017, increasing to 20 percent by 2020, has nearly 41.5 million inhabitants. By this comparatively moderate action, Argentina would lower global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by a greater degree than Uruguay with its near total clean electricity production.
However, Uruguay is not just setting a good example for larger countries. There is more than moralism going on here; there are also practical concerns. For example, just 15 years ago 27 percent of Uruguay’s imports were oil. Now its leading import is wind turbines. It also used to import electricity from Argentina, but now the tables have turned. Uruguay exported a full third of all power generated last summer to its larger neighbor.
So being energy independent, and non-oil dependent has clear benefits. Cross-border co-operation with other countries, in the region, as they too adopt greener power generation, would also help guard against failures associated with renewable energy.
(Uruguay can) expand the grid in geographic terms; if you interconnect with Argentina and southern Brazil, the probability of having an atmospheric event that leaves you without wind power in the entire area of the pampas is very low.
—Gonzálo Abal physicist, Solar Energy Laboratory, University of the Republic of Uruguay
Brazil, which also boasts a very high portion — around 85 percent — of its electricity generation from renewable sources, could do well to follow Uruguay’s example. Most of Brazil’s power, like Uruguay, comes from long-established hydroelectric power. However, recent growth in Uruguay’s clean electricity comes from newer forms of generation, like wind, solar, biomass and mini-dams. These play very small roles in Brazil. Paraguay is another case, achieving 75 percent of its power from a single hydroelectric dam, Itaipu, on its border with Brazil.
Instead of expanding large-scale hydropower, countries in the region would do well to exploit the vast resources of the sun and wind. Massive dam projects present many ethical and issues, including the recent disaster in Brazil, as well as a history of human rights and environmental concerns.
While Brazil’s wind and solar industries have grown in recent years, more investment in infrastructure is needed for long-term energy sustainability and climate security. In this sense, Uruguay has set an achievable example for Brazil, Argentina and other countries to follow.