Energy & Environment
Uruguay’s Green Energy Policy: The World’s Best Kept Secret?
Anyone tuning into the first Democratic debate heard hopeful Bernie Sanders’ shout out to Denmark–and Hillary Clinton’s subsequent dismissal of applying standards that work in Denmark to the United States. It’s become common practice for politicians from around the world to constantly applaud Northern Europe as a set of model countries: their healthcare, their political participation, their education, and their commitment to environmental protection. On the environmental front, Northern Europe is a heavyweight that puts its money behind implementing policy that results in substantive change. Denmark, for example, has funneled time and funding into wind energy nationwide and seeks to use 100 percent renewable energies by 2035. No one is claiming that Northern Europe deserves anything less than respect for its efforts–but let’s step away from the Prom Queen of Electric Energy for a moment and talk about the wallflower making moves without attention from the global media. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s turn to Uruguay.
Uruguay is a powerhouse of hydroelectric and wind energy in Latin America, hosting dozens of projects that are pushing alternative energy to the forefront of the country’s economy. In the past fifty years, the country has transformed from an unstable agrarian community plagued by insurgency and economic instability into a thriving, stable leader in the Western hemisphere. Yet because Uruguay is located in “the Global South,” the international community rarely takes the time to applaud its commitment to green energy. Let’s take a minute to catch up on what you’ve been missing in Uruguay:
Uruguay, with a population of approximately 3.3 million people, is the second-smallest country on the continent. Good things come in small packages: the State Department ranks Uruguay first in Latin America for democracy, quality of living, peace, press freedom and a host of other attributes. Uruguay is a beacon for political liberty, a financial powerhouse and a force for peace both in the region and abroad (it is one of the highest contributors to UN peacekeeping forces). Plus, Uruguay has legalized marijuana, same-sex marriage, and abortion. Healthcare is both high quality and affordable, as is higher education, and Uruguay considered the safest country in Latin America. The icing on the cake is that Uruguay’s former President José Mujica, who just stepped down in March, was known as the “world’s humblest president” because he lived an extremely modest lifestyle and donated the majority of his salary to charity. Although it’s obviously not perfect, Uruguay has a lot to be proud of: particularly its commitment to alternative energy.
Uruguay and Alternative Energy
Denmark better watch its back–Uruguay is aiming to get as much as 38 percent of its national power from wind energy by 2017 and that goal appears easily within reach. In comparison, Denmark started shifting to alternative energy in the 1970s and currently gets about 30 percent of its electricity from wind power. Uruguay is aiming to hit the same energy goal in half the time–ambitious, yet seemingly plausible if wind turbine development continues at aggressive rates. Uruguay exists outside of the ongoing tug-of-war between electric energy and fossil fuels that rages in most of South America–as a nation with no significant coal, oil or gas deposits, alternative energy was a necessity. Historically, Uruguay was dependent on Argentina and Brazil for energy imports but the shift to alternative energy is granting Uruguay a path of economic self-reliance at an astounding rate. In fact, Argentina and Brazil may start importing energy from Uruguay soon.
Starting in 2005, Uruguay invested over 3 percent of its GDP each year in overhauling the energy system. This has transformed the nation into a major center for wind turbines and hydroelectric energy. Uruguay’s flat landscape makes it ideal for wind energy, which proved especially important when major droughts disrupted hydroelectricity productivity in 2014. Billions of dollars have flooded into Uruguay in recent years as UTE (the state-owned electric company) grants projects to international bidders looking to create large-scale wind farms. Uruguay has the highest clean energy growth on the continent and it has created this growth without excluding native workers. Uruguay requires that the control centers of these projects are built in Uruguay and that after the first year of operation, 80 percent of maintenance jobs go to local employees. Expanding the job market for local workers is giving the country traction on its path to energy independence. Beyond wind energy, Uruguay has two unique projects in the works: making Carrasco International Airport the world’s first sustainable airport and using electric energy to power all public transport by 2030.
Oil on the Horizon
The 2005-2030 energy plan that Uruguay has been committed to has performed incredibly so far, but national governments have to plan for worst-case scenarios. Uruguay’s worst-case scenario would be abandoning green energy for fossil fuels. Uruguay, despite its lack of on-shore resources, has been scouted for off-shore drilling to the tune of over $1.6 billion in 3 years. The current administration wants to reach a consensus before committing to oil ventures but with companies such as BP, BG Group, and Tullow Oil knocking on Uruguay’s door, the pressure is rising. Alternative energy is working for Uruguay, but the lure of oil investment is no doubt tempting for the small nation. The transition to oil would lead to a huge shift in the political culture of the country, as new lobbies and political partnerships would open the door for corruption and conflict. Uruguay has made almost unparalleled strides in energy development, yet all those efforts may crumble if the country turns to oil development.
So, Why is No One Cheering for Uruguay?
Why is Uruguay flying under the radar while Northern Europe is lauded on the world stage for its work on alternative energy? One could argue it is because of the size of Uruguay–who is keeping track of a country that small? Well, Latvia and Estonia are both smaller than Uruguay but a quick Google search will turn up a dozen listicles praising these nations’ commitment to green energy. Uruguay may have a small population but that doesn’t mean we dismiss it out of hand. Uruguay has done nothing to anger the international community, on the contrary, it has upheld essentially every possible standard of good governance. So why isn’t everyone planning to retire to Montevideo?
Instead, many suspect that it all comes back to the global North-South divide. The North (Europe, North America, Australia–“the first world”) and the South (Central and Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East–“the third world”) developed in different ways but although economic prosperity has been redistributed over recent decades, the North is still considered the ultimate authority on economic matters. We shed attention on successful European countries that already hold our attention because historically the “global South” has been years behind us in development. We like to think of Latin America in terms of coconuts and jungles rather than a diverse continent with a set of booming economies that rival our own. We are used to Northern European countries succeeding at everything they try their hand at, so watching them succeed at alternative energy implementation is par for the course. However, Uruguay’s success is all the more impressive because it didn’t come from the more stable economy of Northern Europe. Uruguay rebuilt itself after the turbulence of the 1970s–the Tupumaros Marxist guerilla movement, of which Mujica was a part, led a nation-wide insurgency for over a decade–and transformed into not only a regional leader, but to perhaps the most impressive wind development center of the hemisphere. Uruguay is overturning the stereotype of a Latin-American nation plagued by corruption and violence that lags behind the rest of the world. Hopefully, the continuing growth of wind energy in Uruguay will grant it a larger spotlight but until then, the pressure from oil investment places the fate of Uruguay’s energy plan in a vulnerable position. In order to continue creating incredible energy changes, Uruguay must receive more international attention–the media must promote the nation as an ideal location for investment. In the meantime, politicians are going to keep writing love letters to Denmark while Uruguay creeps towards being the most environmentally friendly nation in the world.
Ignoring Uruguay’s achievements is not only insulting to the country, it increases the probability that Uruguay will turn to oil dependency. A concerted effort to recognize Uruguay’s energy achievements will give the nation the public support that it needs, and deserves, to meet its energy goals.
Uruguay is a much-overlooked dark horse when it comes to energy independence. The country’s move toward clean energy threatens to pass its European counterparts, but it doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as European nations. While that may, in part, be because of endemic biases in the United States and Europe, it’s important to recognize the innovative technology being used in the Latin American green-energy haven.