Courtesy of Diego Ponce de Leon

In a spacious room on the third floor of an old building at the University of California, Berkeley, three young graduate students address a crowd gathered to learn about renewable energy — like sun and wind — in Latin America and the Caribbean. The graduate students are not talking about purely technical solutions.

"We know how to integrate renewables. We know it can be done,” says Diego Ponce de Leon, a Ph.D. student in the Berkeley Energy and Resources Group. He thinks that the greatest challenge is to change decision makers’ minds about the idea. “It’s just a matter of paradigm shift for the energy planners.”

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“There are electricity company managers sitting in their offices in Nicaragua thinking that achieving 20 percent renewables is technically impossible, which is far from true,” says Ponce de Leon. He is working hard to debunk this myth.

These graduate students are not trying to persuade policy makers in Latin American countries to move towards renewables with moral arguments alone. They are armed with a robust computer model that accounts for the cost of producing electricity from coal, gas, solar, and wind; the reliability of each technology; and the benefits to society. The model is aptly called Switch, and it demonstrates that “20 percent renewables” is merely the minimum these countries are capable of.

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Ponce de Leon is working with researchers from the University of Nicaragua to design small electrical grids for Managua, the capital city. “Innovative countries such as Nicaragua and Costa Rica should be praised for challenging the notion that you have to be rich to care about being clean,” says Ponce de Leon. “Nicaragua is relatively poor, but it has so much potential.”

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Rebekah Shirley, a fellow Ph.D. student, works on solar and wind energy for the Caribbean, where she is originally from. Using a computer model, she calculated that if the U.S. Virgin Islands aimed for 60 percent reduction in their carbon emissions, the growing wind and solar industry would create hundreds of jobs for electricians, carpenters, roof painters, and many others on the tiny islands.

More than 90 percent of the electricity in the Caribbean is currently generated from imported oil. As all Americans know, dependence on foreign oil is a precarious position to be in, even without considering climate change. But the legal systems in Caribbean countries are often not renewables-friendly. On each island, a single utility company holds a monopoly on all electricity production and sales, and investing in new technologies is not on the top of their priority list.

Chile, one of the world’s longest and narrowest countries, faces different challenges in moving toward renewables, explains Juan Pablo Carvallo, another graduate student from the Energy and Resources Group. He used the Switch model to calculate how many solar and wind power plants his homeland would need to replace its coal power plants, which currently produce a third of the nation’s electricity. Not that many, it turns out, but the biggest issue is actually the transmission lines.

Chile is more than 2,600 miles long from one end to the other, and the wind and solar resources are not necessarily located where most people live. Improving the existing transmission lines is the key to unlocking Chile’s renewable energy potential.

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“Latin America is in a very interesting position,” says Berkeley Professor Dan Kammen, the students’ academic advisor and a leading world energy expert. “They are ahead of the curve in many ways, for example green house gas emissions from energy. But in some ways, behind the curve in terms of building new [energy regulatory] institutions.”

A few years ago, Kammen and his students were tagged by Richard Branson to design a renewable energy plan for his Necker Island in the Caribbean. According to the design, the island was going to be completely self-sustained with 100 percent renewable energy generated on site. “Yeah, he never got around to it,” say the students with a laugh. But small bumps on the road don’t dishearten them; these students have bigger problems and entire countries to worry about.

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Tanya Dimitrova is a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. The talk was sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies.