Washington, DC – Energy integration is back in vogue in the Western Hemisphere. That was the clear consensus of a panel of government and industry experts convened by the Institute of the Americas on December 3 in Washington, DC.
After a period when economic and political factors conspired to set back the gains of regional integration efforts from the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a booming US natural gas market, myriad initiatives of the US government, and November’s change election in Argentina has reinvigorated the appetite for integration.
The well-known story of booming US oil and gas production from shale played a starring role in reviving the importance of regional energy integration. Natural gas trade between the United States and Mexico has more than doubled since 2005 and will double again by the end of the decade. At the same time, natural gas via LNG from the US Gulf Coast is imminent and will surely plug into the import markets of Chile, Central America and the Caribbean.
The United States government, oft-maligned for “not doing enough” in Latin America and particularly the energy sector, has embarked on a long list of energy diplomacy efforts aimed at the hemisphere’s energy market and integration.
Led largely by the US State Department’s Energy Bureau, programs such as Connecting the Americas 2022, the Caribbean Energy Security Initiative and the Energy Task Force all seek to redouble efforts at regional energy integration as well as energy transition, and boosting diversification of Central America and the Caribbean’s energy matrices. Most importantly, significant financial resources are being made available for the programs, including a $20 million clean energy fund being managed by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC.
The State Department representative on the panel, Chris Davy from the Energy Bureau, spoke enthusiastically and optimistically about the programs and the United States’ embrace of energy diplomacy, as well as the upside these initiatives will bring to the Caribbean, Central America and the entire hemisphere.
In addition to the important push from the United States government, there has been a shift in what may be best termed geopolitical forces in Latin America, forces that long caused countries to focus on security of supply and allow domestic concerns to supersede those of the region or regional integration.
An example is the advance and utilization in Central America of the SIEPAC electric interconnection infrastructure to realize regional electric transactions and trade. But also, countries across the Southern Cone have signaled their desire to recapture their pioneering integration efforts. These trends have been greatly buoyed by the change election in Argentina of Mauricio Macri and his pre-inauguration rhetoric on integration writ large, and the role of the energy sector.
Panelist Ricardo Iglesias of Engie pointed to what can be called a wide range of low-hanging regional integration fruit – the under-utilized energy infrastructure that is in place that with minimal investment can be restarted to usher in the next chapter of regional energy integration in the Southern Cone.
Panelists also agreed on the importance to consider the ongoing COP21 meeting in Paris and the global emphasis on confronting the challenges of emissions. Indeed, as the State Department’s Chris Davy put it: energy policy is climate policy and climate policy is energy policy.
The concept that companies are grappling with both internally and as they manage their investments in Latin America and across the globe is that of what can be summarized as an “energy transition” suggested Engie’s Ricardo Iglesias.
The role of renewables and offgrid solutions such as microgrids work hand in glove with the rational for regional integration, Mark Nelson of Sempra Energy noted. In responding to a question on the role of migrogrids across the region, Mark highlighted the lessons Sempra has garnered from their microgrid project in Borrego Springs, California and how it has informed his companies’ international portfolio as well.