Chile’s Bright Future Captured with Efficiency

Currently leading as the largest producer of renewable solar energy in Latin America, Chile is a surprising forerunner in a potential coal-free future.

In the past, it was implied that leading energy innovation and sustainable construction was taking place only in Western countries. However for the most part, developed countries were built upon dated methods drawing as far back or further than the Industrial Revolution, when Climate Change was an unimaginable threat. Due to previously structured systems dominating older cities of our present world, the task to adjust to modern technologies after such extensive periods of reliance on the dirtiest energy sources (coal, natural gas and fossil fuels) is not easy.  In addition, large, dirty energy corporations bully whole societies into agreeing to the universal dependency on cheap, available money.

Regardless of the pressures imposed by large companies to continue on this path of high supply and demand for non-sustainable resources, environmental damage is now so severe that alternatives must be made as soon as possible to slow the abundance of irresponsible carbon-emitting mechanisms. The market is beginning to favour corporations that operate using renewable technologies, which means that investing in such resources has become the responsible and prospective choice. Forerunners in such investments also communicate to other regions that they are on track to a coal-free future. The trend inspires further incentive for nearby communities to make the shift to greener solutions for the well-being of the world’s nations as a whole.

For Chile, the present is a time of great opportunity to utilize the latest renewable energy techniques available, hurdling over the common trials and errors that many modern societies have. Chile is conveniently located where the highest levels of solar radiation in the world are transmitted naturally, more specifically, in the Atacama Desert to the North. It should come as no surprise that this is where Abengoa, an international sustainable energy and environment company, has chosen to establish the largest solar power plant to date in Latin America. On average, Chile sees around 362 days of sunlight annually- offering perfect conditions for a reliable source of solar energy. Not only is the source reliable, but the strength of the radiation causes the costs for solar power to be the most competitive on the market for the time being.

Project Luz Del Norte will cover 478 hectares of land and will generate up to 141 megawatts of energy at the time of its completion, which is set for some time in early 2017. An estimated 174000 homes will be supplied with sufficient energy through the plant named after the desert, Atacama 1. The plant opening also leads to job opportunities for local residents, including some permanent full-time positions for maintenance and operations. The company has also decided to offer training programs for students, donating a PV system to assist with hands-on experience in installations and operations. Finally, local materials will be used including construction products and natural salts that are locally mined.

The salts that are collected act as a thermal storage when heated through radiation from the sun. Solar thermal energy uses mirrors or lenses reflecting onto the salts to harness solar energy into thermal or electrical energy that can then be used by industrial or residential regions. The photovoltaic method uses a direct supply of energy through converting solar energy into electrical current through the support of semiconducting materials. Using both methods to collect the sun’s energy, the plant can offer Chileans a 24 hour supply of stable, reliable energy.

Transitioning to a greater solar energy dependency is right on time for Chile. The import of natural gas from Argentina due to lower costs compared to those of hydroelectricity- a step back from building towards a cleaner future- have been considered the simplest option should solar energy not be available. However, Abegnoa is only the largest example of many companies investing in the solar energy market in Chile, each of which are further influencing more companies to follow suit.

Hydroelectric dams in Chile can introduce some seriously negative impacts, despite being called renewable, especially if they are classified as megadams. These include harnessing large amounts of energy to support massive mining corporations, stress on the surrounding ecosystem, issues with both flooding and droughts and the displacement of local residents. With climate change escalating, droughts and uncontrollable flooding will continue to increase.

The ongoing trend predicts a future where renewable energy sources will become more affordable, offering not only competitive start-up costs, but cheaper energy supplies as well. In fact, a recent report from Deutsche Bank states that during energy auctions from October 2015, solar farm energy was sold for 65$-68$ per megawatt-hour, while wind was sold at 79$ and coal at 85$. This in fact indicates that for Chile, solar power is already the cheapest source of energy in the country.

 

There are still many obstacles. For starters, solar power requires a lot of space. Most of the ground area in Northern Chile, where the sun shines brightest is already being used. In addition, due to its long vertical shape, transmitting energy even to Santiago, located in central Chile, is limited. Northern and Central grids are planned to become merged using technology that already exists, yet the costs are still not entirely covered.

Chile’s solar power initiatives have largely been developed without subsidies by the government, so at least funding by mining companies has benefitted the sustainable market. Financing has been difficult, as construction and routing are still a concern. Keeping energy prices low in order to compete is an ongoing challenge.

Every region on earth exists with special conditions that can somehow be harnessed for clean energy. Projects like the one Chile has undertaken encourages other countries to concentrate on their own regional options. As many of us know, time is of the essence to cater to both our and the planet’s needs. The greater number of countries that choose to lead the way with renewable energy – the greater the ambition will be to sooner see the sustainable future many of us dream of as reality.

 

Chile’s Bright Future Captured with Efficiency
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Cassie Piccolo

Cassie graduated from the University of Guelph, Canada, with a degree in Biological studies and Fine Arts. She has worked with Organic Food organizations, Food Not Bombs, worked with the Sierra Club, is experienced in sustainable agriculture and landscape architecture, and most recently attended the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris. She has been a front-line activist, fighting alongside Indigenous and rural communities against fracking in Canada. In spare time she writes poetry, paints, and hangs out with her massive bear-dog.
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