The plan Leopoldo López and Gustavo Baquero put forward in their new book, Venezuela Energética, is incredibly ambitious. Laying down a set of goals for the next hundred years is daunting. It forces us to confront tough but necessary questions like “What do we want? Who do we want to be?” In the context of the current crisis, the universal answer is a resounding “not this,” which is fair, but insufficient.
This book offers a vision rather than a plan, like a sum of goals that, if met, could drive Venezuela into the 21st century. In some ways, I would say their vision falls short, but it’s an excellent point of departure for a discussion around our carbon contributions to the environment.
López and Baquero’s ultimate goal is to turn Venezuela’s power grid into completely renewable resources. In order to have a totally renewable grid, we’d need to rely heavily on storage or hydrogen, which are very expensive technologies. The authors cite Sweden and Switzerland as examples, which have a large percentage of their installed capacity as nuclear (which is low emission, but requires fuel).
The authors should be more specific. It isn’t clear if they want to remove hydrocarbons from the grid, or if they want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a whole. I understand that these aims aren’t mutually exclusive, but if emphasis on the first is what matters, then some nuances must be addressed.
The other problem is the reliance on hydroelectric energy, particularly, the large, centralized type. Everytime a runner in, say, Guri Dam, is down for maintenance (which can last for months), you are removing a large percentage of the nation’s installed capacity. The Guri mega projects come with mega reservoirs, which are filled with methane emitting biomass. This is a known phenomenon in all tropical reservoirs: methane has 32 times the greenhouse effect potential of CO2. Studies conducted in Brazil show that some of these hydro plants have a larger impact than a combined cycle plant, bringing us back to the point: do we want a hydrocarbon free grid? If we actually want to have a reduced impact on the environment, projects like Guri aren’t viable.
The authors are on point when they argue that we should strive for a mix. Any grid that depends on a single resource exclusively is bound to be unreliable. Hydro is very predictable, but requires proper management. Wind is economical and low impact, but very unpredictable. Solar lacks inertia and reactive power. Like a healthy diet, a healthy grid is about a bit of everything, with nothing in excess.
A Deep Decarbonization Path for Venezuela
These words are not mentioned in the book, but I feel this is what Baquero and López tried to say. Many world economies have laid down a path for the decarbonization of both their grids and their economies. The goals in Venezuela Energética tend to focus on the grid and somewhat on transportation, but decarbonization should be clearer. It’s something everyone worries about, and we have mentioned in Caracas Chronicles how Venezuela is particularly vulnerable to climate change.
The use of electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids is also tricky. They’re a necessary part of any decarbonization plan, but they have to be complemented with the grid’s transition to renewables. Otherwise, EVs are just transferring the pollution from here to elsewhere.
Venezuela’s gas distribution is decrepit and a transition from gas guzzlers to no-emission-no-sound EVs is in order. It won’t happen until the country gets its act together and forget its entitlement to free fossil fuels, which are costly to produce (and should be priced, and taxed accordingly).
Here is where Baquero really shows his chops. Venezuela must become a natural gas powerhouse. Natural gas has low emissions, the technology to transport it is mature and some of the infrastructure is already in place. Even if it’s expensive to ship and store, any decarbonization path should include natural gas as a primary mover and stepping stone to a more greener approach. The challenges here are organizational: developing the necessary infrastructure for extraction and distribution.
I’d love to be a part of Baquero and Lopez’ Venezuela — hell, I’d love to help build it. All of this is day-dreaming, though, as long as chavismo is in the driver’s seat. It’s also very unclear if this plan sees the government as executor or as an enabler. The fastest way to establish a mixed, reliable energy grid is to create an energy market where private organizations can invest, install equipment and sell electrons—the subatomic particles that get pushed through copper pipes and make the world go round—wholesale to a distributor, which could be state-owned or private. But it has to be a state policy, firm and sustainable.
The biggest omission in the book is that there’s no mention of gas and electricity subsidies; there cannot be a different future for Venezuela if this isn’t front and central to the debate. Presenting a system of direct transfers, as the authors have in this book, should make the demise of subsides politically attainable. Allowing for gas and electricity to be sold at a cost (and even at profit) will teach us how to value these resources.
In order for the nation to disdain waste and inefficiency, its citizens must do so first.
The issue of renewable energy globally, and especially in Venezuela, is a topic that should be studied and carefully considered. I suggest the following links for more info: