Brazil holds the key to Latin America’s solar potential: Maguire – XM

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RPT-COLUMN-Brazil holds the key to Latin America’s solar potential: Maguire

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By Gavin Maguire

LITTLETON, Colorado, Feb 29 (Reuters)Latin America is on the cusp of a critical developmental phase for its solar power generation sector that could see it leapfrog Southern Asia and North America to become the world’s second largest hub for solar generation behind eastern Asia.

The region has 176,172 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity in pre-construction as of the end of 2023, according to Global Energy Monitor (GEM).

That volume is second only to the 246,011 MW in the same development category in eastern Asia (China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), and would result in a fivefold increase in Latin America’s current solar generation capacity if completed.

However, recent changes to tax and subsidy levels on imported solar components in Brazil – Latin America’s largest solar developer – have the potential to stall development momentum for the entire region.

BRAZIL’S BET

Brazil accounts for only 27% of solar capacity that is currently operating or under construction in Latin America, but 65% of the capacity in the pre-construction phase, and so is home to the lion’s share of the region’s development pipeline over the coming years.

And with 113,147 MW of solar capacity in the pre-construction phase alone, Brazil ranks second only to China (241,744 MW) in the solar pre-construction tally globally.

But recent and impending changes to the costs of imported panels and components cast a shadow over the outlook for Brazil’s entire solar sector.

From the beginning of this year, Brazil’s government scrapped import subsidies on assembled solar panels, and from March will revoke more than 300 temporary tax reductions on solar modules, mainly imported from China.

The main rationale behind the tax and subsidy cuts is to spur demand for products and components that are made in Brazil, protect local jobs and foster the growth of manufacturing sectors tied to clean energy development more generally.

According to Brazil’s photovoltaic solar power association Absolar, the measures could help trigger waves of fresh spending in the domestic production sector, with new investments in the photovoltaic sector alone expected to exceed $8 billion in 2024.

But with project developers now set to face rising costs as import subsidies cease for widely-used panels and components, it is unclear whether the development pipeline will proceed on pace.

PV PLANS

Brazil has roughly 35 gigawatts (GW) of installed power from photovoltaic (PV) sources, which could grow to 68 GW in the next five years, according to Absolar.

Such a development pace would make Brazil the fifth largest solar producer in the world, and the main engine of Latin America’s solar generation.

However, that growth pace is dependent on the successful completion to aggressive timetables of new solar farm installations, rapid connections of those energy sources to the country’s grids, and the successful implementation of new power pricing schemes that incentivize solar generators.

The development pipeline is also reliant on the build-out of a storage system to accommodate surplus power and limit pressure on power prices during peak periods of solar output, and the implementation of a power management system that optimally integrates solar into the country’s energy mix.

Solar developers in every country face similar challenges, but in Brazil must also contend with regular power outages due to rapid energy demand growth that has exceeded the pace of new power supplies, and a high reliance on hydro power for baseload generation that can be hamstrung during periods of drought.

INFLATION TEST

Brazilian project developers must also deal with an inflation rate of nearly 5%, which is within the central bank’s target range but can lead to steep cost overruns in capital intensive phases of development, such as during the construction of new solar farms.

Solar farm builders also face the prospect of rapidly rising costs as they switch purchases from items imported from heavily-subsidized but seasoned producers in China to potentially higher cost components made domestically by firms without as much manufacturing experience.

The fortunes of solar developers elsewhere in Latin America, especially in Chile and Colombia, are also tied to those in Brazil due to its role as a major supplier of both products and energy sector expertise around the region.

As Brazilian firms slow the pace of panel and module imports and dial up use of domestically-made components, the make up of solar systems elsewhere in South America will shift to match those changes, and incorporate any price rises or efficiency losses that go along with them.

If the drop off in panel imports comes before domestic output can meet demand, resulting product shortages could cause solar construction and connection delays in Brazil and beyond.

But if Brazilian solar producers and energy firms successfully manage to ramp up output, use and exports of high quality locally-made components, then Latin America as a whole will reap the benefits of a new solar powerhouse that could drive the entire region’s clean energy ambitions.

Reporting by Gavin Maguire; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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