The Race for Renewable Energy: Chile takes center Stage
COMMENTARY-ProspectingJournal.com-Throughout the past decade North America has fast expanded its rhetoric on renewable energies, lending much promise to the notion that it remains poised to become a clean tech hub in the near future. But if actions speak louder than words, our green tech allies in South America are quickly transforming the opinion that the renewable energy boom was born here at home. Stretching across a massive coastline and spanning an area measuring 4,000 square kilometers, the Atacama Desert in Chile is quickly developing into a clean source of sustainability. To many it might come as somewhat of a surprise. The Atacama currently plays host to the entirety of Chile’s mining industry. It is the venue of last year’s mining disaster, which saw miners remain trapped in desperation for weeks on end. It is where the mining industry swallows up 80 percent of Chile’s energy, and in a sector that continues to thrive energy consumption is expected to grow at a minimum of 5 percent each year. But in playing host to areas of land that only receive rainfall once a decade; the Atacama boasts some of the highest levels of solar irradiation’s in the world. So much so, that solar energy can be produced at rates that can compete with the likes of gas, diesel and even coal. And it is the miners themselves who want to exploit this.
Tim Keating is the marketing chief at Skyline Solar, a company based in California. He is currently engaged in talks with several mining companies in Chile and is looking to supply them with the equipment needed to harness the sun’s energy. He stated, Atacama “has good sun resources and big, unfulfilled demand for power from mining companies”. And there aren’t just one or two companies interested in using the sun’s power; the entire industry is looking to do so. Last week, 15 of Chile’s business leaders, all of whom represented different mining companies, met to discuss plans to exploit Atacama’s solar energy. According to Business News America’s estimates, projects aggregating to over 1.5 GW in capacity are currently in the environmental licensing phase, some of which have already been approved. Chile’s Atacama Solar has already applied for a permit to build a $773 million, 250-MW solar farm in the region by 2018. Switzerland’s Xstrata PLC is currently exploring possibilities for solar installations in the Atacama, and Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, is proving one of the forerunners in the Atacama solar boom.
Chile’s utility board typically sells electricity on the market for 12 cents a kilowatt-hour. According to Solarpack, the Codelco plant will eventually sell electricity for 10 to 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, quite a remarkable feat considering this is solar energy we are talking about. In fact, it would mark the first solar installation on earth that wouldn’t require government subsidies to remain profitable. Silvia Tapia oversees renewable energy projects for Codelco. In her statement she claimed, “we have an energy resource here that’s absolutely unique….[and] it’s where our operations are, so it’s obvious we should use it”. And harnessing it makes even more sense considering Chilean government regulations set to come into play. Chile’s president has outlined a strategic energy plan that targets 20 percent of non-conventional renewable energy by 2020, which is expected to reduce energy use by 12 percent as a result of greater efficiency.
So the stage is clearly set. Chile’s GDP is expected to grow at 5.1 percent annually for the next three to four years, with energy needs expected to double in just over a decade. And the Atacama provides more than just a sunny and financially competitive alternative. Its location allows it to supply prime conditions for both wind and geothermal power. Combined, there is an estimated 16,000 megawatts of potential over the next five decades. If this is realized Chile will quickly garner a reputation as a world leader in the race for renewable energy. And for its solar pioneers, the sky is literally the limit.