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A Way Forward for Hydroelectricity in South America

In recent years, governments in South America have turned to large-scale hydropower as a cost-effective way to improve livelihoods while addressing the energy “trilemma:” ensuring that future energy technologies provide effective solutions to climate change, environmental degradation, and supply security.

Patricio Zambrano-Barragan (MCP ’12) explored the rapidly-changing context for hydropower in South America by looking at three flagship projects: Ecuador’s Coca-Codo-Sinclair (1,500MW), Chile’s HidroAysén (2,750MW), and Perú’s Inambari (2,000MW).

Patricio makes three claims:
1) Large-scale hydropower projects are evaluated against a small universe of alternatives. The projects are not considered among a variety of potential plans, but rather with respect to one plan’s possible iterations vis-à-vis a specific political goal, such as security and sovereignty, fast GDP growth, or regional integration. This approach has resulted in considerable social and environmental conflict.

2) State mediation of conflict has been further complicated by the presence of new sources of financing for large infrastructure development – what Patricio calls “south-south development ventures” – through which national governments spearhead domestic infrastructure development that does not rely on “traditional” financing sources from multilateral organizations. The prominence of these money sources denotes a clear historical departure away from universal standards and toward bilateral management of decision-making processes.

3) Regardless of the regulatory framework governing energy planning, the state creates makeshift regulatory or judicial solutions to deal with the overlap of diverse ecosystems and settlements on and around hydropower sites. Public opposition resulting from these solutions reveals clear inadequacies in the way these countries plan and develop high-interest infrastructure projects.

The implication in Patricio’s findings is that opportunities exist to make hydropower a credible option to meet the energy trilemma if state actors are willing to think beyond the “decide-announce-defend” model of decision-making, and if South American countries can set up a regional, independent, third-party oversight body to mediate between the state, project sponsors, and civil society actors. Read more in Patricio’s thesis.