The role of hydropower in the commitment to sustainable development

Almost 100 per cent of Uruguay’s electricity is generated from hydropower and other renewable resources. Hydropower’s role is not just historic, writes Honourable Minister of Industry, Energy and Mining Dr Guillermo Moncecchi, it will continue to provide a platform to develop non-conventional renewables and achieve sustainable development.

Although the discussion between historians and linguists over whether the country´s name in guaraní, Uruguay, refers to the ‘river of snails’ or the ‘river of birds’ is not settled, there is no doubt that etymologically, the name of this country shows a close link to the natural resource water. This link has a technical correlation, the first hydroelectric plant in South America, Cuñapirú Dam, was inaugurated in 1882 in association with a mining enterprise in Uruguay, and kept in operation until 1918.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Uruguay reinforced this commitment, commissioning studies that concluded with the construction, around the middle of the century, of three hydroelectric plants. Those generation plants, together with the implementation of a binational dam with Argentina, have allowed Uruguay to be among a group of countries with both the largest installed capacity and hydroelectric generation per capita in the region.

Recent studies carried out by the Latin American Energy Organization, OLADE, show that, while at a Latin American level 25 per cent of potential generation capacity is effectively operative, this indicator exceeds 85 per cent in the case of Uruguay. All of the above shows that Uruguay has developed its hydroelectric resource at an early stage, practically reaching its large-scale operation capacity. As a consequence, its historical electric mix presents sustainability indicators that are more than satisfactory in international terms.

However, the impact of hydroelectric generation on the sustainability of the Uruguayan electricity mix does not end there, but presents two additional dimensions. On one hand it is the base on which, more recently, Uruguay has carried out a very dynamic incorporation of sources of non-conventional renewable energies. On the other hand, the construction of the binational power plant has been the driver for the development of regional interconnection infrastructure, a very valuable component to progress in the integration of other non-manageable sources of renewable generation.

Thus today, Uruguay, based on the execution of its energy policy, presents a ratio of approximately 1:1 between hydroelectric and wind power generation capacity (in fact internationally, Denmark, Uruguay, Portugal and Ireland, in that order, have the largest share of wind resource in the electricity mix). In addition, generation capacities from biomass and photovoltaic solar are developed.

As a result of this process, today our country shows with satisfaction that, in average terms in the last years, 98 per cent of electric energy has come from renewable sources and 99.8 per cent of the population has access to electric power. The share of hydroelectric energy in the electric mix is approximately 50 per cent in an average year, which complements 27 per cent of electricity generated from wind, 18 per cent from biomass, 3 per cent from solar power and approximately 2 per cent from thermal power plants using fossil fuels.

Simultaneously, Uruguay has changed the role that it traditionally occupied in the region as an energy sink, and since 2013 it has continued without interruption to be a net exporter of electricity to Argentina and Brazil. Additionally, in the short term, the possibility of advancing the electrification of other uses by orienting a surplus of renewable generation opens additional opportunities to the decarbonisation of other sectors of the economy in which it is more challenging to achieve transformation.

Between 2014 and 2017, a study was conducted on the complementarity of renewable sources and the demand for electrical energy, which evidenced, on one hand, a strong complementarity between hydroelectric and solar resources. On the other hand, it identified that by managing energy storage or demand it is possible to eliminate or significantly reduce the inclusion of new thermal generation plants in the next 30 years. Among other technological alternatives that could contribute to reach this objective, are pumped storage power plants. Uruguay is currently working actively in the assessment of alternatives aimed at the accumulation and management of demand. It advanced in the identification of potentially useable sites in the medium term for the location of plants that allow for the daily variability of energy demand.

In this context, our commitment to the future of the development of small-scale hydroelectric plants is not only compliant with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, but also responds to the water-food-energy nexus initiative through the promotion of new multi-purpose power plants destined for irrigation crops and drinking water for consumption by the population, which also include the possibility of electricity generation. The implementation of these new ventures does not only improve the sustainability of the energy sector, but also responds to the need for adaptation of a key sector of our economy in a country that, with 3.5 million inhabitants, produces food for more than 30 million people in the world.

In short, hydroelectric power in Uruguay has not only had a relevant role in the past, ensuring the sustainability of the electricity mix, but also in the present, acting as a platform to develop non-conventional renewable energies, redoubling the commitment to comply with the SDGs.

This piece originally appeared in the 2019 Hydropower Status report published on 12 May.

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