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LATIN AMERICA
“We must ensure that energy policy be patrimony of the entire population”
Juan Nicastro
3/14/2016
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Interview with Pablo Bertinat, researcher of renewable energy sources

Pablo Bertinat is a professor and researcher of renewable energy sources at the Rosario campus of the National Technological University of Argentina and member of the NGO Ecologist Workshop of Rosario. For more than 20 years, he has advised social movements across the continent on energy projects.

Juan Nicastro, a Latinamerica Press contributor, interviewed Bertinat about the results of the COP21 and the urgent need to increase the use of renewable energy sources and discontinue using fossil fuels. Bertinat provided central considerations of Latin America reality and warned about the desired transition process to effectively the health and the rights of the territories and peoples be respected.

What do you think about the outcome of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) held in December 2015?
COP21 left us with many concerns, especially due to inaction, lack of coordinated or agreed upon action to advance towards the change we need. We urgently need a transition to actually use less fossil fuels and more renewable energy, and also an efficient use of energy. We need to stop relying on oil, gas and coal and move to non-conventional renewable sources that are sustainable. We must make this transition due to the weather emergencies we face. Global climate change is the major social and environmental problem we face as a species. And one of the main causes of global warming and climate change is the use of fossil fuels. Globally the situation is very serious. We rely 80 percent on fossil fuels and in Argentina by more than 90 percent. But this change cannot happen in just any way.

What has been the development of renewable energies in the region?
The progress is very uneven. Latin America is a little less reliant on fossil fuels compared to global data, but it has many differences, interesting cases such as Uruguay’s initiatives, or complicated cases such as Argentina’s, where we are unfortunately above the world average in terms of fossil fuel use. Our solar and wind energy use does not reach 1 percent of total energy produced.

In Latin America, the largest production of renewable energy comes from hydropower, dams, which are very controversial because, although they may be considered renewable energy sources, they have had strong negative impact because of the characteristics of the projects. The percentage of use of non-conventional renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biomass, is still very low, except in the case of ethanol production in Brazil or the use of firewood in Central America. But both are troubled by the impact on health, land use and the environment.

Is researching new technologies the key to the transition?
No, the problem of energy is not only a technical problem. It is a problem that has to do with socio-political, economic and mainly social issues due to the impacts being generated by the search for energy sources in the continent. The impact of the current energy system on communities and the environment is very large, especially because of hydrocarbon exploitation. We must also remember that the use of renewable energy sources can also have a strong impact.

We need to address the issue of energy with a complex approach. If we cannot stop thinking of energy as a commodity, it will be very difficult to build a new energy reality. If energy is only a commodity, there will be a lot of interest in obtaining energy without analyzing the real needs of people. In a continent with a serious problem of inequality, we need to view energy as a tool to improve the quality of life of people, to redistribute wealth and move towards another model of society. This is why the processes of decommodification, deconcentration, decentralization of power, besides the kind of sources used, are so important.

There is the danger of going into an energy system with many renewable sources but managed by transnational companies, a very concentrated system, and even a system that produces negative social and environmental impacts, not as big as fossil fuels, but very serious. In the case of large hydropower centers, such as Belo Monte in Brazil, which has a large social opposition, though it is a renewable energy source, the social and environmental impact is very high because of the size and characteristics of the project. The issue is not only the renewability of the source but how it is used.

Are you aware of specific experiences of production of renewable energy by grassroots organizations, communities or citizens that are worthwhile to make known?
There are many experiences, worldwide and in Latin America, at the home, schools, community levels. They are very important small scale examples because of everything they offer in terms of learning and how they generate sovereignty. There are, for example, small hydropower projects networks made by cooperatives in southern Brazil. The MST [Landless Workers’ Movement] in Brazil has training schools for the development of small hydropower centers and solar heaters. Another example comes from Argentina: we are working near Rosario, in a small town, in a venture to develop a network of distributed renewable energy generators. We produce solar and wind energy by connecting to the low voltage grid of a cooperative. It’s a pilot project that demonstrates the feasibility of such technique.

The energy crisis is part of the crossroads we are at in this model of society, its inequalities and injustices. A few years ago, I was very moved when I participated in meetings on gender and energy, coordinated by women’s groups who analyzed the relationship between the fact of being women and forms of energy production. It was a sign of the breadth and potential that the energy debate has to understand the world, how much it transverses issues. There is an unequal distribution of energy, unsustainable projects, such as dams or the use of firewood that have a larger impact on women. When building a dam, companies offered compensation to people, and men quickly accepted, women showed more attachment to places, and when evictions occurred the most affected were women and children. Or when cooking with biomass, the health impact is stronger on women, who cook in poorly ventilated rooms. This shows that the energy problem is much more than a technical issue.

What prospects do we have for developing renewable energies that do not adversely affect the rights of communities?
I have hopes for the development of energy policies at the local and community level.  In a continent like Latin America, where urbanization is growing more, thinking about energy policies, taking ownership of policies and not delegating them, but taking charge to implement energy solutions where we live, discussing what is consumed, how it is consumed, and how we can generate alternative energy, is, for me, a desirable path and the feasible path to pursue. This would allow communities, municipalities and even provinces to discuss energy policies with the State, and not to just be subjected to these policies. This is an interesting path to take in the road to another energy reality.

We need democratization of energy policies, which are currently dominated by very technical talks, abstracted away from people. The people are those who should have the power to decide on these issues. We must focus on the needs of the people and from those needs think about transition to renewable sources of energy. We must ensure that energy policy does not depend on two or three “specialists” but be patrimony of the entire population. There is still time, there is much to do. It will be a difficult transition, but we have the tools to achieve this, if we deepen the debate and rely on concrete local experiences. —Latinamerica Press.


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