Latin America has one of the world’s biggest supplies of natural resources for renewable energy, but access to power still remains elusive for many in the remote rural regions. With the region’s healthy supply of natural resources; namely sun, wind and water, cross-country co-operation and extended power lines, could mean that within coming years, the whole continent could rely on natural resources alone. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) 2016 analysis of Latam’s renewable energy potential, claimed that “Latin America hosts some of the world’s most dynamic renewable energy markets, with more than a quarter of primary energy coming from renewables, twice the global average”.

While the long-standing role of hydropower remains strong, in addition to the progress with biofuels, several countries in the region have been significantly scaling up other renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biomass-based electricity. 

Back in 2015, Brazil, Chile and Mexico ranked amongst the top ten global renewable energy markets in terms of investment with many other countries in the region, like Costa Rica, Uruguay and Paraguay, generating virtually all electricity through renewables.

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, electricity coverage is now at more than 96 percent, making the Latam/Caribbean region close to becoming the world’s first developing region to achieve universal access to electricity

However, despite recent progress, within Latam there are still substantial pockets of energy poverty. Approximately 21.8 million people are without electricity access. More than 80 million people rely on firewood and charcoal for cooking that is burned in fuel-inefficient, toxin emitting stoves, creating significant amounts of indoor air pollution, which has been linked to respiratory illnesses and adverse environmental impacts.

Chile’s Atacama Desert has offered a powerful model which could even be rolled out across countries. One of the sunniest places on earth, it has the potential to generate enough electricity to power all of South America, though for political reasons, this kind of co-ooperation has so far proved challenging. Energy security is very much on the political agenda. 

Though the 100,000 square km desert is in Chile’s remote north, the country has transmission lines now connecting the huge solar plants to the more heavily populated south. In turn this brings lower prices and more reliable energy supplies.

With the relatively low cost of the technology to harness these renewable sources, this is great news for the economically challenged continent, where its remote regions have for years been prone to blackouts.

A World Bank project to increase access to electricity in rural areas of Argentina, between 2015 and set to finish in 2020, aimed to bridge the gap between the well provided-for cities and the remote villages, which had created a social and geographically imposed economic divide. It is estimated that 750,000 people in these indigenous communities still do not have access to electricity

The project includes over 3,000 public buildings, many of which are schools, where solar panels and solar-powered water heaters, stoves and ovens have been installed, in areas where the children’s parents and grandparents had relied on candles or kerosene lamps. 

Around 150,000 people in remote regions of Argentina now use renewable energies - solar panels, hydroelectric systems and wind energy, for lighting homes, charging cellphones and even listening to the radio.

In Peru, at least 6% of the population still has no access to electricity. Just in the deserts of the coast, the wind and solar capacity could cover a large part of the national demand, but these and other types of unconventional renewable energies do not account for even 3% of the national energy matrix, according to the WWF. The aim is to close this gap by 2022, with a long-term goal of the country being 100% renewable by 2050. According to Wind Aid, around 37% of Peru's remote, rural populations lack access to energy, with over 5 million people without power.

The organisation provided wind turbines to several remote communities including Playa Blanca, where the 300-strong population relies on fishing for income, with candles and small diesel generators as the primary energy sources. Located nearly 560 miles (900 km) north of Lima, Wind Aid is supporting the development of wind power in the region with the Playa Blanca Community Wind Workshop; a fully outfitted test center for electrification, education, and engineering. Already, 23 families have fully operational working WindAid 1.7 Generators and 57 solar panels (provided by the municipality).

As long ago as 2010, Christoper West, a British physicist, helped bring power to remote parts of the Andes (Part of the Venezuelan government’s green energy program,“Sembrando Luz” (“Sowing Light”), 15 solar systems of 300 watts each were brought to the rural community of Rio Blanco, Trujillo. Many of these areas in the Andean and Amazonian states are so remote, they can only be reached by foot, mule or canoe. 

Through the programme, more than 1,000 solar panels and solar powered water purification systems were installed throughout the country in regions difficult to connect to the conventional electricity grid.The project also brought drinking water to the communities by using solar powered pumps and water purification and desalinisation systems.

Such projects offer hope for many other regions across the globe, so what has been the main driver for the success? 

There has been support from a number of major sources, from national public financing institutions to public funds. In 2015, national public financing institutions accounted for over one-third of new clean energy project finance in Latin America, according to Irena

National development banks have also provided loans for the large-scale deployment of renewable energy in some Latin American countries and at least 14 Latin American countries have established renewable energy public funds. In addition, several national public finance institutions offer grants and subsidised loans for research, development and demonstration projects.

This exemplifies the importance of investment, and collaboration. Support has to come from multiple sources for change to manifest, and with this combination of private and public sector investment, the message is clear: the region’s energy security and advancement depends on renewable energy. 

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