Turning Latin America green

Santiago Cunial, a doctoral candidate in political science, investigates issues surrounding green energy in Chile and Argentina.

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.

Santiago Cunial.
Santiago Cunial, a doctoral candidate in political science. (Image: OMNIA)

At the time, Cunial was working with Tulia Falleti, Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of Political Science and director of the 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.

“I discovered that the solar panels were installed by a local university and paid for by an international organization,” explains Cunial. “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.”

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA.