Monday, December 27, 2010

A Renewable Colombia?

The Jepirachi windfarm on the La Guajira peninsula
Colombia's record-breaking flooding coincided with the Cancun conference on global warming, providing a great excuse to talk about Colombia's potential as a renewable energy producer.

Two long coasts mean wave, tidal current and possibly even wind energy, lots of sunlight (although lots of clouds), lots of biomass and even volcanic activity, Colombia has little excuse not to exploit its huge renewable energy potential.

A recent report by Colombia's Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Inter-American Development Bank found that Colombia had potential for more than 46 gigawatts of renewable energy generation, including 25 GW of small hydroelectric projects and 21 GW of windpower, as well as solar, biomass and geothermal. (How much is a gigawatt? Enough to power 750,000 homes in the U.S., and many more in Colombia.) Right now, Colombia produces a tiny 1.5% of its energy from renewable sources and hopes to expand that only to 3.5% by 2015 and 6.5% by 2020. (The Colombian government defines only small hydro projects as 'renewable,' while in fact 80% of its electrical generating capacity is hydropower.)

There's lots of good reasons why Colombia could be a pioneer in renewable energy, use it to replace fossil fuels and provide reliable power to remote regions where the power grid doesn't reach. Colombia could even start exporting renewable energy technology. South Africa appears to be doing that. It's also in Colombia's interests: government officials have blamed this year's disastrous floods on global warming, and warming is predicted to melt Colombia's glaciers and destroy much of its wetlands.

The development bank report recommended that Colombia institute policies to promote renewable energy generation, such as guaranteeing markets and stable prices.

Instead, however, Colombia is going full bore for old-fashioned fossil fuel exploitation, meaning oil, natural gas and coal. Fossil fuels are not only terrible for the environment; in the long term, they could undermine the nation's economy, institutionalizing corruption, economic instability and even authoritarianism, as has happened in many big petroleum exporters, including neighboring Venezuela.

A concrete example: the other day I talked to a Mexican textile trader who used to import cloth from Colombia. But Colombia's peso has risen so much that it's cheaper to import from India and China. (Why Mexico can't competitively make its own textiles is another issue.) The peso's rise is in great degree due to investment in the fossil fuel extraction sector. So, the jobs-scarce fossil fuel industry is hurting the jobs-instensive textiles industry. Not only that, but resource extraction industries are also notorious for generating corruption and financing outlaw organizations. A case in point is Occidental Petroleum's Caño Limon pipeline near the Venezuelan border, which used to be bombed regularly by the ELN guerrillas whenever they weren't satisfied with their protection payments. More oil, coal and natural gas exports might just make Colombia into another Venezuela, which exports petroleum and imports everything else.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogota Bike Tours

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