Neighborly solutions to energy challenges

In the rush to focus on relationships with China and Europe to help tackle the global energy challenge, tremendous resources across the Western Hemisphere are being overlooked.

But, said Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, program director at Rocky Mountain Institute, many exciting projects are happening now across the Americas that the U.S. should pay attention to.

“We need to think about how to foster more interesting, more vibrant exchanges within our hemisphere,” Hutchinson said. “Working up and down the hemisphere has a lot of options for us.”

Hutchinson, moderator of a Biennial of the Americas energy and climate change roundtable in Denver last week, guided a panel of luminaries in a three-hour conversation about energy use and carbon emissions in transportation, electricity and renewables. Panelists included U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Gov. Bill Ritter; and ambassadors, CEOs, and leaders of non-profit organizations from the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The facts are clear,” LaHood said. “Our patterns of energy use, where we get our energy supplies and how we consume them, are contributing to a great and growing crisis.”

But, LaHood continued, there’s no silver bullet to fix the problem. “We can’t just wave our magic wand and end our reliance on petroleum or solve the climate crisis overnight.”

The real question, he said, is what to do about it.

The good news is that countries throughout the hemisphere are taking on the challenge, implementing real-world solutions that work according to their unique cultures and geography. And some countries, in Latin America especially, are collaborating to balance the gap in energy resources, working together to deliver power throughout the region.

With very little natural energy resources, Central American countries are forced to spend more on high fuel prices rather than funding for education or social programs, said Carolina Barco, the Columbian ambassador to the U.S. Yet other countries, like Columbia, Bolivia and Venezuela are blessed with abundant resources.

In the works today, she said, is a grid connecting Columbia-where hydropower supplies 67 percent of its electricity-to Panama. Transmission will eventually go up through Central America to Mexico and down to Peru.

“We need to think as a region how we improve the way we can be efficient in the use of energy,” Barco said. “We have a whole grid going now.”

With its rapidly expanding population and limited natural resources, Panama is blessed to be part of the grid, said Panamanian Ambassador Jaime Alemán. Having the connection with Columbia and with Costa Rica allows the country to diversify its sources of energy. “It’s a fantastic opportunity.”

In addition to sharing energy resources to mutual benefit, some, like Canada, are taking advantage of greater economic opportunities by adopting a neighbor’s standards.
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By enforcing the same tailpipe standards as those applied to buses produced in the U.S., said Ambassador Gary Doer, Canadian manufacturers are now selling buses in both countries, increasing their market and potential for economic growth.

“The environmental benefits are obvious, but there’s also a huge economic advantage,” Doer said. “The debate about ‘either/or’ is so much part of our democracy; that it has to be either ‘this or that.’ Actually, you can design it to have both.”

Instead of each country developing its own plan, said Sally Ranney CEO of StillWater Preservation, there should be an integrated “Americas” plan to help inspire and promote technology transfers across borders. To loud applause, Ranney cited the Commission for Environmental Cooperation-part of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico-as a potential template that could be expanded to include all Western Hemisphere countries to help drive faster innovation.

“It’s taking an inventory of the Americas and knowing exactly what we have” in terms of renewable resources, Doer said. The bottom line, he continued, is that whether within a country, a continent or a hemisphere, policies need to be in place to effectively capture and transmit renewable energy sources. “In order for all of us to take advantage of the great innovations taking place every day, we’re going to have to do the due diligence on transmission.”

Transmission is just one piece of the puzzle, as is the technology. Gov. Ritter made it clear that part of his mission to make Colorado a leader in the new energy economy is ensuring equal access to affordable energy for all citizens.

“Its important that we can deliver energy and not have an economic consequence that makes it impossible for people to afford their energy bills and their medical bills at the same time,” Ritter said. Alluding to RMI founder Amory Lovins, he continued, “The cheapest watt is the ‘negawatt’-the watt you never use. So energy efficiency is absolutely a part of this.”
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Rebecca Cole is the online editor at Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit “think-and-do” tank that drives the efficient use of energy and resources. Learn more about RMI’s latest initiative, Reinventing Fire, to move the U.S. off fossil fuels by 2050.