Chile’s Dam Affected Communities Left in the Dark After Massive Earthquake

Gary Graham Hughes

Chile is still reeling in the aftermath and the aftershocks of the February 27th 8.8 magnitude earthquake. The main Chilean electrical grid, the SIC (Sistema Interconectado Central), which provides service to approximately 90 percent of the country's industrial and domestic energy users, has been particularly hard hit by the earthquake and the ongoing aftershocks.

The new Minister of Energy Ricardo Raineri admitted upon taking office on March 11 that the transmission system in Chile is in a precarious state after the earthquake, and that the operation of the electrical grid system was in emergency mode and operating outside of normal and legal parameters-and would be for several months until substantial repairs could be made.

Chile's Industry has suffered extreme damage from the February 27 earthquake
Chile's Industry has suffered extreme damage from the February 27 earthquake
Santiago Times

Then, a few nights later and a full two weeks after the massive earthquake, a transformer failed in the Bio Bio Region (the heart of the area slammed by the earthquake) and threw the entire SIC into darkness for several hours, with service slowly coming back on throughout the next day.

Transmission lines and numerous substations throughout the area affected by the earthquake have been seriously damaged, and the main "trunk" system of the entire grid is not in normal operation, necessitating widespread transmission improvisation to keep electricity flowing to high use areas such as the capitol Santiago and the mines further north.

The electrical transmission system in Chile has proven to be vulnerable to earthquakes
The electrical transmission system in Chile has proven to be vulnerable to earthquakes

Demonstrating the social vulnerabilities exposed by the earthquake, two weeks after the earthquake the communities closest to the dams on the Bio Bio River had still not had electrical service returned. It appears that the Bio Bio dams were not seriously damaged by the quake, and that though they are generating electricity, the regional transmission system is still in recovery from earthquake damages, leaving the dam-affected communities in the dark. As of this post, with reconstruction underway, there is still no news to indicate that these communities have had electrical service restored.

There is no question that the strong earthquake activity and a change in government have exposed the vulnerabilities of Chile's energy expansion plans. From Patagonia, a quake-prone region relatively untouched by this last temblor, our colleague Peter Hartmann offered some perspective. "First," he says, "the earthquake demonstrates what we have been saying all along: that having Chile depend on mega-dams and mega-transmission lines in Patagonia will exponentially increase the risk to Chile's electrical system during natural phenomena like earthquakes. Essentially, building dams in Patagonia is an extremely risky proposal when one considers the damage caused by earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as the growing understanding of reservoir-induced seismicity. These risks are unnecessary when Chile has so many viable energy alternatives."

"Second," Hartmann continued, "we have noticed that the people who have been the most affected by this earthquake are the poorest and most marginalized, such as the people living near the Bio Bio dams. We hope that this catastrophe provides our nation with an opportunity to rebuild in a manner that is much more just, environmentally sustainable, and responsive to the needs of common people."

The new Chilean President Sebastian Piñera is asking that all Chileans make a concerted effort to conserve electricity to reduce stress on the electrical grid. Perhaps there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the earthquake tragedy. As Chile steadily gets back on its feet after the rocking the nation has received in the last weeks, it will be exciting to hear the new level of debate about energy policy, risk, and vulnerabilities. Such discourse will certainly pave the way for more sustainable and secure alternatives to the proposals to dam Patagonia's rivers.

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