Turning Latin America Green

Santiago Cunial, a doctoral candidate in political science, investigates the carrots and sticks that move green energy in Chile and Argentina.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

By Katelyn Silva

In 2018, Santiago Cunial was a political science doctoral student doing research in northern Argentina when something unusual caught his eye: solar panels in the remote village.

At the time, Cunial was working with Tulia Falleti, Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American and Latinx Studies Program, to research maternal health policy interventions, but he became fascinated by the unexpected green energy initiatives around him.  He decided to interview the villagers to learn how solar arrived in such an unlikely outpost, and those conversations altered his research trajectory.

Santiago Cunial, a doctoral candidate in political science

“I discovered that the solar panels were installed by a local university and paid for by an international organization,” explains Cunial, who had always been interested in climate policy but had focused on health and gender while earning his B.A. in political science from Universidad de Buenos Aires and an M.A. in political science from Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. “The decision of the university and international organization to invest in the project was a significant development for the villagers, as most hadn’t had electricity before the solar panels. Now they had access to lights and refrigerators. These panels were improving their quality of life in terms of education, health, and security, while also providing energy use that wasn’t adding to the climate change problem.”

The experience in northern Argentina inspired Cunial to think more deeply about energy policies and incentives in Latin America. He made it the focus of his doctoral dissertation, working with Falleti and Guy Grossman, a professor of political science, as his advisers. With their guidance, he’s endeavored to understand why there is so much variation in green energy technologies—like solar and wind—across developing countries in Latin America. He says, “These are cheap energies that are non-polluting and can have a real positive impact on people’s lives, so why don’t we see them everywhere?”

Now a graduate fellow at the Penn Development Research Initiative and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, Cunial has discovered that the answer is complicated and that context matters. Latin America is not a monolith, nor are its countries analogous to the United States or Western Europe.  Additionally, different types of governments are more amenable to green energy policy changes and incentives, he says.

For all of these reasons, he explains, “When we talk about the decarbonization of energy systems, we need to stop thinking exclusively about the more common measures across countries around the world, like tariffs or renewable energy targets. Yes, these things are important, but in countries where there aren’t strong institutions and decisions are not driven only by market rules—like many in Latin America—we need to think of different strategies that are hyper-adapted to each national context and that understand the specific political and institutional barriers and motivations.”

Cunial originally meant to focus his dissertation on field research in four countries to give a broad view of the different motivations for greening in Latin America. However, the pandemic shifted his approach, pushing his research online, primarily to in-depth interviews and primary and secondary sources. Cunial narrowed his focus to his home country of Argentina and Chile because they are viewed as two of the most developed countries in the region. Both countries are seen as successful cases of privatization from the 1990s, and they showed an early interest in promoting renewable energies in the 2000s. Yet, both countries only started to succeed in adding solar and wind energy capacity to their markets later in the 2010s.

Today, Cunial’s research finds that Chile is making progress on solar and wind sources of electricity—but it didn’t happen overnight, and it required broad greening policies and incentives. “Chile’s government signaled to the markets that they wanted to move in the direction of green energy in the early 2000s,” says Cunial. However, “even there, where market rules are probably some of the strongest in the region, it didn’t really happen until the big market actors were incentivized to change by reducing their institutional power with measures like having a new independent market operator and pushing for the entrance of new utilities to the market. Chile is now moving towards a more environmentally friendly situation, with renewable energies in terms of solar and wind, but also alternative sources like green hydrogen.”

This is a real opportunity for Latin America if they can remove the institutional and economic barriers that hinder these green technologies within each country.

In Argentina, the government has suspended many of the greening reforms passed by the previous administration as it focuses on an economic downturn. Nevertheless, Cunial hopes the country and the region will embrace greening. “There is a lot of interest around the globe, and within the private sector, to invest in alternative, renewable energies. This is a real opportunity for Latin America if they can remove the institutional and economic barriers that hinder these green technologies within each country,” he says.

After completing his PhD, Cunial hopes to continue his academic research and connect it to real policy change.