A Series Set in South America
Chile has a complicated energy problem. With almost no traditional resources of its own, the country has to import much of the energy it uses, especially in regards to combustible fuels. This contributes to some of the highest energy prices in Latin America. Further, the copper industry accounts for almost 40 percent of Chile’s total energy consumption, and is responsible for 20 percent of the country’s GDP. In short, the economy depends on copper production, the copper industry depends on ample energy, which needs to be imported, which impacts the economy. As the government admits, this problem is about as unsustainable as it gets, for both the economy and the environment. A few years ago, the Ministerio de Chile published its National Energy Stategy, which announced that the country is fervently seeking alternative energy for the future.
In 2008, Spanish energy company Endesa and Chilean power transmission company Colbun S.A. proposed a hydroelectric mega project in the southern tip of the country, called Hidroaysén. The project, which consists of five separate power plants, would cover a large percentage of the Interconnected Central System, Chile’s power grid. However, it would also flood six national parks and 11 national reserves and affect countless other protected areas. The debate faced by the country was one that many other renewable projects around the world struggle with: Do we compromise an area of land in order to move away from the fossil fuels that degrade the planet? At what point does one trade-off become less sustainable than the other?
The issue divided the country for almost six years, sparking numerous and sometimes violent protests and debates. In 2011, then-President Sebastian Piñera approved the project, although the majority of the country disagreed. Residents, especially in the south, argued that the scale of the project was unnecessary, the government was opaque in its voting process, and the impacts would be an environmental and social disaster. Although it would provide much needed energy to the country and signify a massive shift away from fossil fuels, the dams would flood a precious part of the country’s wilderness, compromise the habitat of the endangered Huemel deer, and be an intrusive presence on the lives of southern Chile’s indigenous Mapuche tribes.
In September, I traveled to San Pedro de Atacama, which climatologists have declared the driest place on earth. Walking through the desert’s Valle de la Muerte was like walking on another planet. Giant craters of rock and sand spackled the canyons before me, and for two hours, I saw not another life form, flora or fauna, besides the humans in my group. The wind raced along the dune’s corridors, and I lost my hat down the side of a cliff. According to National Geographic, parts of the Atacama haven’t seen rain since record keeping began, and even the wettest part of the desert receives only 15 millimeters of rain per year on average. The tourism website boasts of an “eternal blue sky,” a generalization not far from the truth.
Chile Renovables claims that “utilizing just 1 percent of the surface of the desert for solar energy could produce more electricity than the entire Hydroaysen project put together.” Better still, that energy could be transferred directly to the copper mines in the north. This, to me, makes sense. Why generate massive amounts of energy in the least populated area of the country, as Hidroaysén suggested, only to have it distributed over 3,000 kilometers to the nation’s largest energy users?
We woke up the next morning when the air was still cool and dark, the cloudless and arid night sky a perfect lens through which to view the stars. After almost two hours in a large white van, spiraling and twisting always upwards, we parked in the middle of the desert as the sun came over the dunes. Stacks of steam rose from the ground in every direction. The El Tatio geyser field is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 80 active geysers. As we stepped out of the van, tentatively approaching a small bubbling pond, the rubber of my sneakers began to warm. The volcanoes in the distance were suddenly only snoozing, their veins tangible beneath my feet. There must be energy here, too, I thought. Indeed, according to the Andean Geothermal Centre of Excellence, Chile has the capacity to generate 16,000 MW of geothermal energy, or 91 percent of the country’s energy demand.
Because the country’s wilderness is so diverse, with desert to the north, Patagonia to the south, the Andes to the east, and 4,000 miles of tidal energy to the west, there exists a unique opportunity to generate sustainable energy in almost every region. For example, this year saw the opening of El Parque Eólico El Arrayán, a wind energy farm in the coastal region of Coquimbo. The installation is relatively small and is going to direct 70 percent of its energy to a nearby mine, but at its maximum capacity, it could provide for 200,000 homes. This small-scale, local method for producing energy serves as an example for sustainable, non-intrusive means for producing energy.
In the summer of last year, the Chilean government officially rejected Hidroaysén due to environmental reasons. For the new President Michelle Bachelet, this decision was important in gaining the public’s approval. By rejecting the project, Bachelet put herself on the side of the citizens and the places in which they live and separated herself from Piñera’s economic priorities. However, Hidroaysén’s backers will insist on the project by changing the specific elements most hotly contested. Still, even if Hidroaysén lessens certain environmental impacts, the project is too massive and remote to be the most efficient solution to Chile’s energy crisis.
Many people, including myself, come to Chile for its vast and pristine wilderness, and the citizens of Chile are considered progressive for their general consensus to protect the environment. In fact, almost 20 percent of the country is protected land, compared to the US’s 13 percent. The country’s citizens have adapted to not only live in but also cherish some of the most extreme places on earth. In the future, Chile might be an example for the rest of us, too–minimizing impact, maximizing efficiency, and protecting the wild places left.
All photos by Paulina Jenney.