The Importance of a Clean Matrix
According to biologist Edward O. Wilson in his book ‘Creation’ (which I highly recommend), the 21st century’s greatest challenge is raising people’s standard of living while preserving the rest of existing life. The growth model that humanity has followed has accomplished exactly the opposite. Wilson mentions in his book that “the current rate of extinction of species calculated conservatively, is about 100 times higher than the one which existed before the appearance of humans on Earth, and is expected to rise to at least 1,000 times in the coming decades. If this increase continues and is not counteracted, the cost for humanity, wealth, environmental security, and quality of life will be catastrophic.”
This context explains why it is so important striving to decarbonize the energy matrix: it is a key chapter in a broader transition to a circular economy model. In other words, a model in which the growth and increase in people’s quality of life is decoupled from the use of finite resources hence the impact on the environment. This not only ensures human life but also for all the other life forms in the planet and their ecosystems which, as a whole, provide the ecosystem services that sustain our life on Earth as we know it. Within these finite resources is the ability of the atmosphere to absorb greenhouse gases without producing an increase in the temperature of the planet.
It is also important to understand the context of the context. What do we understand by energy matrix? We often confuse concepts between electricity matrix and energy matrix (I recently did in a tweet). Chile’s energy matrix, according to data up to 2017 provided by the Ministry of Energy, adds up to a total consumption of 288,901 TCals. It is comprised by the following types of energies: 58% of oil derivatives, 21% of electricity, 13% of biomass and 1% of coal related products. At the same time, from the perspective of the sectors that use it, said consumption is distributed in 38.6% on mining and industry, 36.0% on transportation, 22.4% residential, commercial and public, and 2.3% is destined for others uses.
In light of the preceding data, it is important that while celebrating the advancements in the growth of renewable energies in our electricity matrix, we understand that these advancements refer only to 1/5 of Chile’s total energy matrix, and that we cannot lose sight of moving forward with blunt determination in other sectors such as transportation, which used 36% of the total consumption. For instance in 2017 it used 99% of energy based on oil derivatives including a 48 % of diesel (according to the data provided by the Ministry).
The disaggregated nature of the problem can lead us to doing nothing
The aforementioned cannot be an excuse for the electricity sector to not move faster. The challenge of this great transition towards a sustainable economy is eminently a coordination issue, and the electric sector due to its nature, is a much easier sector to coordinate than the others. A coordinated transition is fairer with the valid private interests behind the large investments that the energy projects require, given the first to change is not harmed, nor does the last take any benefit from it. Likewise, this sector is able to access current and future technologies that make this transition viable and competitive. We should not forget that, in spite of the great advances the generation of electricity in 2017 used 46.1% of petroleum and coal derivatives, and only 14.3% solar, wind, and hydro energy (3,7% solar and wind). The electricity sector can, by far, head this transition; in addition to the decarbonization of the rest of the matrix -especially the consumption related to transportation- has to go through a greater electrification, and this must be addressed with clean generation so it doesn’t backfire on us.
Finally, even if it is essential to set the numbers aside in order to deal with the problem in a more refined way, it is key not to fall in the temptation of using the relative low importance that our sector, company or person have in regards to the entire global problem as an argument for not doing more; the disaggregated nature of the problem can lead us to doing nothing. This challenge represents an opportunity for innovation and creation of unprecedented value for humanity. Chile must, not only ride this wave, but with the unique conditions for renewable energies, Chile must be able to influence it and use it as an incentive to reach a sustainable development.
This column was also published in El Mercurio