Sunday, December 6, 2015

It Can Be Done

Uruguay now gets 95% of its electricity from renewable sources. Not only that, but electricity is cheaper there now than it was 15 years ago, when 27% was generated using imported oil and 15% had to be imported from Argentina. Now Uruguay is an energy exporter. There is no magic involved, and no nuclear power, just a national decision to make it happen. The most important step was offering developers of alternative energy projects 20-year fixed-price contracts, backed by a reliable government that has never defaulted on its debt. With those terms, major energy firms were happy to build solar, wind, and biomass plants and sell the energy at a price that is currently below the market rate.

That actually might be the most important part of the story: big companies like Siemens are betting that over the next 20 years the price of electricity from alternative energy will fall, not rise, guaranteeing them 20 years of profits.

If Uruguay can do this, we could, too. If we cared enough.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Well there are some notable major differences between Uruguay and the US.

They have 1% of our population total, and about 2% of our land area with a more favorable geographic distribution. It's always far easier to provide for smaller systems with less complexity. Our raw production needs are orders of magnitudes larger than theirs, and our distribution routes pass across more difficult terrain.

Terrain also matters in terms of energy production itself. A lot of Uruguay's land is naturally suitable for either solar or wind generation, whereas this is decidedly not the case in America. Much of our territory that would be suitable for these forms of energy is situated far from major population centers, meaning power generated would have to be transferred over vast distances to be used, suffering from massive inefficiency along the way.

Uruguay is also still a highly rural country, with a stark contrast between the crowded, highly developed cities and the low density countryside. Their population is more centralized and less spread out overall, meaning they don't suffer as much energy loss from transmission inefficiency. Their cities are also generally newer, and consequently employ better planning and civic engineering for greater efficiency.

Uruguayans themselves also don't consume as much electricity as we do - their usage patterns are simply more efficient, and they save more electricity than we do. Our per capita consumption rate is almost five times what theirs is.

The notion that "If Uruguay can do it, so can we" isn't wrong - it just doesn't factor in the added difficulties we face in our specific situation compared to theirs. If we really wanted to, we absolutely could switch to renewable energy. But there would be associated costs that I don't think many Americans are yet willing to pay.

We'd have to make certain compromises - like perhaps spending less on our military, instead channeling those funds into our infrastructure. Uruguay spends very little of their money on guns and bombs, and so they have far greater freedom to spend on energy instead. But sadly, I don't think Americans are going to care enough to produce those sorts of changes for some time still.