Chile to spearhead new sustainable energy production on continent

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Published On : Mon, Aug 18th, 2014

First solar thermal plant in Chile — and all of South America — hopes to provide a solution to country’s alleged impending energy crisis.

Chile’s first solar thermal plant - the first one constructed in South America - will reduce Minera El Tesoro’s fossil fuel use by more than 50 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 tons per year. Photo via Sandia Labs / Flickr

Chile’s first solar thermal plant – the first one constructed in South America – will reduce Minera El Tesoro’s fossil fuel use by more than 50 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 tons per year. Photo via Sandia Labs / Flickr

On its quest to diversify its energy sector due to soaring costs and a drop in global competitiveness, Chile is erecting the continent’s first solar thermal plant — a cost-efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to energy production and storage — in Antofagasta, an important mining region.


Abengoa, a Spain-based company that specializes in sustainable energy, broke ground last week in the Atacama Desert to initiate construction, slated to last approximately three years.

Upon completion, the plant, which received an initial US$ 1 billion investment, will supply heat to mining company Minera El Tesoro. According to Abengoa, the new energy process will reduce the mine’s fossil fuel use by more than 50 percent and carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 tons per year.

During the ground-breaking ceremony, Abengoa Delegate Councillor Manuel Sánchez explained that the power the solar thermal plant would generate in 1 percent of the Atacama Desert would be the equivalent of 90 percent of the energy Chile currently uses.

“What we’re building here is a sun mine. Chile has the biggest sun mine in the world,” he said referring to the desert, which receives the highest levels of direct solar radiation in the world.

“With 112 plants like this one, Chile would be energy independent. If government continues to support this project, we can achieve this objective,” Sánchez added.

According to government reports, Chile will face severe electricity shortages as soon as 2017 if it doesn’t find alternative modes of power generation.

The country currently imports 60 percent of its primary energy and boasts the continent’s highest energy prices. Soaring costs have discouraged mining companies — who suffer from the second highest prices among their global competitors — from pitching into Chilean ground.

Abengoa President Felipe Benjumea claimed the new solar thermal plant would return Chile’s competitive edge in the industry.

“We’re convinced that this center will help relaunch mining projects that are currently stalled due to uncertainties regarding the availability and high cost of energy. This plant will contribute to Chile’s independence in the energy sector,” he told the press during the ground-breaking ceremony.

President Michelle Bachelet pledged US$650 million to energy over the next four years, of which around two thirds will go to Chile’s national petroleum company (ENAP), the state-owned hydrocarbon exploration and extraction firm.

Environmental groups, however, have accused the government of launching such sensationalistic missiles as a way of gathering popular support for money-making mega projects, such as the construction of dams.

In June, the HidroAysén mega dam project, which would have led to the creation of five hydroelectric dams in the Patagonia Region, was struck down following mass protests from local communities and green activists.

Likewise, earlier this month, thousands of Chileans marched through Santiago to protest the installation of an AES Gener dam in the Cajon del Maipo valley, which they said would impact the capital’s drinking water.

As an environmentally friendly venture, solar thermal energy thus offers a satisfying alternative to energy production.

A form of harnessing solar energy to generate thermal or electrical energy, solar thermal energy uses mirrors or lenses to concentrate sunlight into high-temperature collectors. A particular technique called Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) then produces electric power.

Due to its efficient storage capacity, CSP allows electricity to be dispatched over a time period up to 24 hours, thus allowing a plant to produce energy day and night.

CSP’s high efficiency also allows a plant’s collector size to be quite small and use less land per unit of power generated, thereby reducing the plant’s environmental impact and cost.

Chile’s very first solar thermal plant will consist of a tower 250 meters high that will concentrate heat starting from 10,600 heliostats.

According to Abengoa, the plant’s construction is set to create upward of 700 job posts to be filled by approximately 2,000 workers. Once it is ready for commercial use, the plant will create approximately 50 job posts.

By Meaghan Beatley
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Meaghan Beatley
Meaghan is deputy editor at The Santiago Times. A former reporter for The Daily Free Press in Boston, Meaghan lived and traveled throughout South America and studied politics and Latino Boom literature at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Contact her at mbeatley@santiagotimes.cl and follow her on Twitter @mbeatley.