Wind Energy Is Emerging As Top Energy Prospect, Says Tokman

The quantity of renewable energy in Chile’s electric grid has more than doubled since the beginning of President Michelle Bachelet’s term, the state-run daily La Nación reported Monday.

The country’s capacity to produce energy labeled Non-Conventional Renewable Energy (ERNC) rose from 286 MW in 2005 – making up just 2.4 percent of the grid’s roughly 13,000 MW capacity – to an estimated 600 MW by the end of 2009, or 4 percent of the capacity.

ERNC projects usually rely on either solar or wind power, but also include run-of-the-river hydro projects (without dams), tidal power and thermal power from Chile’s volcano-laced landscape. Dam-based hydro projects are not considered to be ERNC projects because of the damage to ecosystems, flora and fauna created by their reservoirs.

“We’re seeing a very interesting diversification that points to one of the objectives we have: greater security,” said Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman. “In the north we’ve already begun the first photovoltaic (solar) project.”

Tokman pointed to a law passed in 2005, which freed up regulations for small energy providers under 9 MW annually, as well as another law that will require energy providers to receive 5 percent of their energy from ERNC sources between 2010 and 2014. This number will rise to 10 percent by 2024, with ERNC power increasing at a rate of one half of one percent per year between 2015 and 2024.

The country’s renewable energy portfolio comes largely from a mix of hydroelectric and wind energy sources.

Wind power has emerged as one of the more promising technologies for the future, growing from just 2 megawatts in 2006 to between 180 and 200 megawatts by the end of this year. State-run copper company CODELCO announced earlier this year that it was looking to invest millions of dollars in a wind energy farm.

“From the point of view of the SEIA [Environmental Impact Evaluation System], what we’re seeing the most of, to everyone’s surprise, is wind [energy],” Tokman said. He added that the Ministry initially overlooked wind energy subsidies when it modified the regulatory framework.

Another potential renewable power source is tidal energy. A June 2009 report by Chile`s National Energy Commission Chile classified the country as having “unique global potential” for tidal energy capacity, asserting that harnessing just 10 percent of tidal energy would exceed the existing capacity of Chile’s central electricity grid (ST, July 31 ).

Some of the country’s largest renewable energy projects, however, are strongly opposed by environmental and other groups.

Patagonia’s HidroAysén project is perhaps the most controversial energy project in Chile now on the drawing boards, although more than a dozen coal and diesel fueled energy projects have also created a great deal of public opposition. HidroAysén calls for constructing five dams adjacent to national parks in Region XI: two along the Baker River (Chile’s largest) and three on the powerful but shorter Pascua River (ST, Sept. 7).

HidroAysén would consolidate nearly 90 percent of the central grid’s power production in the hands of two companies (Italian-owned Endesa and Chilean-owned Colbùn) and would also require a 2,000 km transmission line – through many of the nation’s most pristine national parks and close to eruption-prone volcanoes – to link the power to Central Valley industries.

The HidroAysén critics fault Chile for relying on “dinosaur” technology (dams and coal burning power plants) and for not seriously engaging in ERNC initiatives. They cite Germany, Spain and the U.S. as examples that Chile should follow.

Germany and Spain, for example, have dramatically increased their ERNC production by using feed-in tariffs to encourage decentralized ERNC production.  Feed-in tariffs require transmission companies to by home-produced electricity (solar panels, windmills, etc.) at a premium rate, thus assuring home-owners a reasonable payback on their ERNC investment.

And in the U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year. With expected new government incentives, this rapid growth in rooftop installations on homes, shopping malls and factories should continue.

Beyond this, solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are going up fast in California, Arizona and Nevada. The availability of a molten-salt heat-storage technology that enables the plants to continue generating power up to six hours past sundown is spurring broad investor interest. About 6,000 megawatts of solar thermal power plants are now under construction or development in the U.S., or about one half of Chile’s current total 13,000 MW of production.

Chile’s Atacama Desert, say environmental critics, is laying fallow while the nation’s kleptocracy – those owning the coal mines and water rights to the nation’s rivers – loots and destroys Chile’s environment to maintain their position and wealth.


By Daniel Zarchy (

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