Resource-Rich Colombia's Green Energy Gambit
Global warming is a big problem in Latin America, but the private sector is busy developing alternative energy sources. Has the rush to innovate arrived in time?
BOGOTA — Colombia is one of the richest nations in natural resources, with 10% of the world’s biodiversity, and ecosystems that spread across 68.7% of the country. But climate change is wreaking havoc here, seriously threatening the availability of these precious resources.
The good news is that a thriving environmental business sector is working to innovate its way out of the problem. The most recent figures from the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) show that the country emits a very moderate amount of greenhouse gases — 180 million tons in 2004, just 0.37% of the global total. And yet, periods of drought in Colombia are becoming increasingly severe. This year, for example, IDEAM was forced to send warnings about water shortages in several regions when the levels of the Madgalena and Cauca rivers and their tributaries dropped precipitously.
These periods of drought present major challenges for Colombia's energy sector, according to Manuel Antonio Camacho, executive director of Sistema B, a community of companies that sell products looking to solve environmental and social problems.
First, in accordance with regulatory requirements, 77% of the electricity generated during an average year in Colombia comes from hydroelectric power stations. So essentially, the country’s energy security depends in large part on a normal rain cycle and the resulting rainwater being available to produce power.
Second, indiscriminate clear cutting and other factors reduce vegetation, which leads to soil erosion and river sedimentation, which can in turn block water to the electricity plants. Lack of vegetation also reduces the amount of available water, as plants store it during winter for use in summer.
Capitalism to the rescue
But Camacho believes that his companies have one serious advantage, in that the energy sector is constantly innovating to respond to new challenges just like those posed by climate change. The energy companies will always have to be “diversifying energy sources in order to access the furthest outlying regions and have less of an impact on the environment.” He says that they simultaneously must work toward greater sustainability. “This is the leap forward that Colombia needs for the 21st century.”
For example, Codensa and Emgesa, two of Colombia’s biggest energy companies, place significant emphasis on environmental preservation in their sustainable development policy, not least because water and light are their primary materials. Both companies see clear benefits to supporting sustainability. “Protecting ecosystems guarantees the water supply required to generate hydroelectricity and distribute it,” one company statement says. Another of their objectives is to decrease all forms of pollution, including CO2 emissions and sound.
In terms of promoting zero emissions, both Codensa and Emgesa plan to incorporate electric vehicles into their work fleets. So far, they have 16 electric vehicles, close to 30 electric motorbikes and 100 electric bicycles as part of a program called E-bike to Work.
The program’s participants have already completed almost 8,000 trips — 63,000 kilometers cycled, 3,000 hours saved in transport time (118 days) and a reduction of 2.8 tons in carbon emissions. In a city like Bogotà, where transport is responsible for almost 40% of the greenhouse gases generated, the initiative is not just interesting but also crucial.
Codensa and Emgesa are also working on a project called Bosque Endesa, which aims to protect and restore 690 hectares (1,500 acres) of woodland in the Bogotá river basin by substituting non-native species like eucalyptus with their native counterparts. This will help the soil and rivers recover and usher in the return of wild flora and fauna. There are now no fewer than 50 species of trees and bushes, 70 types of birds and 12 types of mammals, including sloths, in the program’s zones.
Protect and preserve
Alongside these innovating sustainability projects, the two companies are also running an education campaign about the environment and efficient energy consumption. Since the companies were founded in 1997, clients, employees and partners have all benefitted.
Other energy-sector businesses are also embracing renewable practices. Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), which provides electricity and water, says that “protecting woodland, conserving water and maintaining water quality, and committing to fight climate change” are among its key strategic sustainability objectives.
EPM’s established a climate change policy in 2012 and committed to institute further strategies to tackle the causes and minimize the consequences of this problem.
The results are already visible. The company protects almost 37,000 hectares (91,000 acres) of vegetation and woodland in reservoir basins and leading projects such as the Jepírachi wind farm (the only one in operation in Colombia), which reduces carbon emissions by 20,000 tons a year. And it is implementing others, such as mini hydroelectric plants that can reduce CO2 emissions by 50,000 tons per year.
In the same way, EPM has thrown itself, very successfully, into research on sustainable development. A percentage of operating income is invested in innovative projects linked to issues such as energy efficiency, renewable energies, climate change and water availability. The result of this work is that 85.5% of the energy it provides now comes from renewable sources.
Isagen is on the same path. The company recognizes that each time an area of land is chosen for a project, the natural balance will be altered and environmental changes will ensue. So it has an environmental management policy allowing it to identify and evaluate potential issues, assess the risks and implement mitigation and compensation strategies for the impact of its operations in that area. Its environment policy has two components: biophysical issues, whereby they aim to protect, conserve and improve the natural heritage of the project zones; and social issues, whereby they aim to identify the impact on local populations and resolve any problems.
In its chairman’s report last year, the company acknowledged that hydroelectric production decreased approximately 14% compared with 2011. This drop was essentially due to changes in the hydrology of the source basins, and therefore it establishes a number of objectives to help mitigate the effects of climate change, among them wind and geothermal projects.
Colombia is advancing quickly at a regional level in its search for alternative energies, and the government is intensifying its efforts, says Yessica Jacob, director of social responsibility for Findeter (a development bank linked to the Colombian government that provides credit for sustainable projects). She says regulations and clear incentives are needed to promote the initiative. Also, the technical transition required in any switch to renewable energies involves a certain amount of risk, so tax support may encourage businesses to take the leap.
Findeter is currently assessing cities such as Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Montería, which hope to become sustainable cities. These communities are learning, for example, how to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, how to identify and map environmental vulnerabilities, and how to take steps forward in assuring a dependable water supply. A true example for the rest of the country.