Chile Looks To Renewables To Safeguard Energy Supplies

  A photovoltaic plant in the Atacama Desert that supplies Cerro Negro Norte iron ore mine.

A photovoltaic plant in the Atacama Desert that supplies Cerro Negro Norte iron ore mine.

Home to the world’s largest copper reserves, Chile is the main producer of the mineral which has been the country's major source of export income since the early 1900's. However, the abundance of this natural resource, in addition to gold, lithium and iron ore, is not matched by the availability of conventional energy sources, and an increasing reliance on imports, fuelled by an ever-greater demand from the mining industry, has led the country to implement an ambitious plan to harness renewables.

Relying on its near neighbors for its gas, oil and coal supplies has posed a constant threat to Chile’s energy security, especially given local political tensions, and exposing the country to the volatility of external markets has resulted in some of the highest electricity prices in Latin America. Indeed, and as reported by Bloomberg, in 24 of the last 30 years the country’s energy prices were higher than the world average, and at their peak in 2011 they were almost double. With the threat of frequent droughts and earthquakes added to the mix, Chile’s government decided to look to diversify its energy supplies, and has made a conscious effort to incorporate green sources into its strategy.

  Enel Green Power’s Sierra Gorda wind farm will supply 295 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid annually.

Enel Green Power’s Sierra Gorda wind farm will supply 295 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid annually.

With vast deserts and mountains, 4,000 km of coastline and 140 active volcanoes, the country has enormous renewable energy potential, and after passing a law in 2013 mandating that 20 per cent of its energy should come from renewable sources by 2025, there has been a surge in renewable energy projects. Strong winds blowing in from the Pacific coast and the Andes makes it an ideal home for wind power, and Atacama in the north, the world's driest desert, has one of the highest rates of solar radiation on the planet. Given that the north of the country is also where most of the mining industry is located - which accounts for 33 per cent of total energy consumption - the development of solar projects in this area has allowed the companies easy grid access and is overcoming capacity constraints, as well as facilitating a reduction in energy costs. Some firms, including state-owned copper producer Codelco, have even invested in their own solar and wind projects.

  The Carrera Pinto photovoltaic array (foreground) and the Luz del Norte array feed directly into Chile’s electrical grid.

The Carrera Pinto photovoltaic array (foreground) and the Luz del Norte array feed directly into Chile’s electrical grid.

Initially enjoyed primarily by the mining companies, the renewable energy resources are now being made available to the wider population. Chile had separate power grids for its northern and central regions until last November, when a project to connect the two was completed, and by the end of 2017 it was producing 14 per cent of its electricity from solar power. It has subsequently set a new target of 70 per cent renewable by 2050.

The increasing use of renewables is a game changer for Chile, which is now the largest producer of solar energy in Latin America, and hosts some of the largest solar plants under construction in the world. And the country is not only safeguarding its own energy sources, but is also expected to become an exporter of electricity in the near future. 

Photos: Jamey Stillings

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