Can Renewable Energy Save Patagonia’s Rivers?

Patrick McCully

This is a guest blog by our former Executive Director Patrick McCully. It can also be found on the Black Rock Solar website.

Patrick in front of one of the proposed HidroAysén dam sites.
Patrick in front of one of the proposed HidroAysén dam sites.
Photo courtesy of Daniela Castro

Back in May I was lucky enough to go down to Santiago to give a presentation comparing progress in renewable energy implementation between Chile and California. I took advantage of being in Santiago to head further south for a weekend in the remote Patagonian province of Aysén. This spectacular region of mountains, glaciers, deep lakes and wild rivers is under threat from a megaproject known as Hidroaysén which includes five huge hydroelectric dams and one of the world’s longest power lines.

The dams have stirred massive controversy in Chile. Despite strong local opposition and opinion polls that consistently show that a large majority of Chileans are against the project, the government continues to give its wholehearted support to the Chilean-Italian consortium that wants to build it.

Fortunately, the chances of the dams not being built, and of the Baker and Pascua rivers being able to continue running free into the South Pacific, have increased markedly over the past few months.

One reason is the lack of clarity over who will foot the bill for the mammoth 1,300-mile transmission line – which would cut across some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet. But another is the rapid growth in new renewable technologies in Chile, especially of solar power.

Lago General Carrera, Aysén, Patagonia
Lago General Carrera, Aysén, Patagonia
Photo courtesy of Patrick McCully

Chile is blessed with some of the world’s best renewable resources. It has a long coastline for generating power from wind and waves (a map of Chile superimposed upon one of the US stretches all the way from southern California to northern Maine); a position on the Pacific “Rim of Fire,” which speaks to its likely plentiful geothermal resources; countless fjords and islands off its southern coast that imply a massive potential for tidal power; and its far north being one of the sunniest places on Earth, the Atacama Desert.

Yet despite this wealth of clean energy resources, Chile’s power sector is what can best be described as a big dirty mess. Most of the country’s power is generated by big-dam hydro and dirty coal plants, and much of the capacity added in recent years has been diesel-powered. The over-reliance on big-dam hydro has meant repeated power shortages during the seemingly ever more frequent and severe droughts that the country is experiencing. And not only is the country’s power supply dirty and unreliable, it is also extremely expensive, with Chileans paying some of the world’s highest electricity prices.

Five huge companies currently monopolize the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in Chile. Their efforts to meet rapidly growing power demand by building big hydro and coal plants have run up against determined citizen resistance in recent years, driving the power sector to a crisis of both credibility and supply shortages.

The above factors together with the rapidly falling prices for wind and in particular solar power have set the stage for a clean revolution in the Chilean power sector – a revolution that will make it obvious that the damming of Patagonia is overpriced and unnecessary.

By early 2012 Chile had only a handful of small solar projects, and the country’s energy establishment’s attitude to solar was almost entirely dismissive. But the change in interest and attitudes – and hard cash invested – has been head-spinningly rapid.

At the time of my visit in May, 1,400 MW of solar had received, or were applying for, environmental approval from the Chilean government. Just two months later the amount of solar capacity in the approval pipeline had more than doubled. The 694 MW of projects that had received environmental approval by mid-July included a 220 MW photovoltaic megaproject being developed by Chile’s US-owned utility AES Gener. By comparison, the world’s largest operational PV solar project, the Agua Caliente array in Arizona, had 200 MW on-line by mid-July 2012 (the plant is still under construction and is set to max out at 290 MW).

The first large solar array in the country, the 1 MW Calama Solar 3 project, was commissioned in June. The developers claim that Calama is the first large PV plant in the world that is economically viable without the need for government subsidies of any kind.

Chile has also given environmental approval to 2,800 MW of wind projects, with another 1,670 MW more in the approval process.

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Patagonia Without Dams! Reads a banner in Coyaique, capital of the Aysén region.
Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Patagonia Without Dams! Reads a banner in Coyaique, capital of the Aysén region.
Photo courtesy of Patrick McCully

The combined capacity of the solar and wind projects that have already been approved are greater than the 2,750 MW capacity of the Hidroaysén project. And the combined capacity of solar and wind approved and applying for approval is equivalent to almost half of the country’s existing generating capacity.

While not all of these approved plants may be built, and while most of the solar capacity will be connected to the grid in the far north of the country, which is not currently connected to the central grid that would be supplied by Hidroaysén, these numbers do show that solar and wind could easily replace the power that Chile hopes to get from damming Patagonia.

Meanwhile Chile has taken only the most initial baby steps in exploiting its presumed geothermal potential, and could also be doing a lot more on energy efficiency. Furthermore, the huge potential for small-scale solar on rooftops and fields in the relatively heavily populated central region is almost completely untouched.

A net metering law approved in March should help kick-start the distributed solar market. This market should also be greatly helped by the growth in utility-scale solar projects, as these should foster the emergence of an ecosystem of solar equipment importers, manufacturers, distributors, designers and installers.

Chilean energy wonks classify wind and solar power as “Non-Conventional Renewable Energies.” Solar and wind are already “conventional” in Europe and North America where they are now attracting just as much investment as old-school fossil fuel technologies (and much more than nuclear or big hydro). Within just a few years as hundreds and then thousands of MW of solar and wind come on-line in Chile, the country’s energy experts will have to come up with a replacement for “non-conventional” to describe their fastest growing power technologies.