By Chere Di Boscio
As anyone who has ever lived in South America knows, not all homes are connected to the gas mains, especially poorer households. Consequently, the cry of ‘Hay Gaaaassss’ (‘there is gas’) is loudly emitted from the drivers of propane trucks throughout Latin towns every night.
Ironically, propane is far more expensive per unit than gas, but low income households cannot afford the initial investment in the infrastructure to instal gas pipes to their homes, and federal governments are usually not willing to help.
Luckily, FOVISEE, a non-profit sustainability and housing organisation in Argentina, has been lending a hand to the fuel impoverished, with the help of the German government.
It does seem odd that a foreign body is doing what a federal one should to help the poor and to boost renewable energy strategies, but three years ago, when Germany decided to unplug itself from nuclear energy and promote renewables instead, it made spreading the use of green energies overseas part of its agenda too. So when FOVISEE proposed installing solar water heaters on the rooftops of homes in the low-income barrio of La Perla in Argentina, the German embassay in the country decided to assist the project, as it was in keeping with its own sustainable energy goals.
So far, the project with FOVISEE has equipped 42 homes with new solar technology, which cost the residents of La Perla nothing, and allows them to heat water for baths and showers and heat their homes for free.
Despite this success, FOVISEE representatives claim the neither the local nor federal government is interested in helping the solar project grow, most likely because since Argentina controversially re-nationalised the country’s largest oil company in 2012, promoting alternative energy has been a low priority for the Kirchner government.
In fact, Argentina’s track record with regards to sustainable energies is rather weak: it necessarily doled out energy subsidies during the country’s economic crisis in the late 1990s in order prop up the economy and help people survive. But these same subsidies have led to overconsumption and tended to favour middle and high income households, as they were given out ‘across the board’ to both rich and poor.
The result is the near-doubling of Argentina’s use of fossil fuels since 1990, and the obscuring of the real costs of energy and its production–for example, because the government has already paid for the infrastructure of oil extraction, renewables seem far more expensive by comparison. Moreover, in 2011, for the first time in almost three decades, the country became a net importer of energy with a huge US$9.4bn bill for importing oil and gas. With the country’s electricity demands estimated to increase annually at 6%, it’s clear that a reconsideration of its energy policies is necessary for Argentina.
In fact, they have already done so, to an extent. In 2006, for example, a law came into action that required 8% of the country’s electricity demand to be generated by renewable sources by 2016. Argentina’s Official Plan of Renewable Energies Programme (GENREN) and Argentina’s state-owned energy company, Enarsa, have together agreed to contract 1GW minimum of renewable energy capacity. Construction on 17 wind farms with a combined capacity of 955MW has begun, but is only 20% complete.
However, due to a lack of financing, some green energy projects have already stalled or been shelved, despite President Cristina Kirchner’s declaration that “we are trying to achieve universal access to energy for the year 2030. It is very important to use renewable energy. We have an obligation to the quality of life. We are all responsible.”
Clearly, it may be some time before the Argentinian government chooses to prioritise green energy, especially in such a dedicated way that the Germans have chosen. But the people may soon start to demand it–neighbours of La Perla have begun to ask for their own solar panels to heat their homes and water, and are even willing to pay for it themselves.
That decades long cry of “Hay Gaaaassss” may soon be as archaic as the knife sharpener’s bells or the rag collector’s call.