Active Citizens, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Latin America & the Caribbean, Natural Resources


Big Hydropower Dams Trump Alternative Energy in Chile

SANTIAGO, May 22 2012 (IPS) - Chile has enormous potential for producing non-conventional renewable energies (NCRE) like solar and geothermal, yet they only contribute three percent of the country’s energy mix.

Campaign opposed to the HidroAysén hydropower project in Chile's southern wilderness region. Credit: Patagonia Without Dams

Huge hydropower companies, exploiting many of the rivers in the country’s wilderness regions in the south, are at the forefront of energy generation.

“Chile has very little oil and natural gas in the south, and the coal is of poor quality, so in the 1930s the idea emerged that the rivers were the only viable source of energy for the country,” Juan Pablo Orrego, who holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences and is head of Ecosistemas, a local NGO, told IPS.

“The problem is that we have remained bogged down in this paradigm,” said Orrego, who won the 1998 Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize.

During the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the 1980 constitution was approved, and the 1981 Water Code and the 1982 General Electricity Services Law were enacted.

This “astute trio of laws provides the legal basis for transnational corporations today to have absolute control of our country’s water resources,” said Orrego.

Chile has an installed capacity of 17,000 megawatts, of which 74 percent powers the Central Grid System (SIC), 25 percent serves the Northern Grid (SING), and less than one percent is devoted to two small grid systems in the southern regions of Aysén and Magallanes.

There are nearly 40 hydropower stations nationwide, and 10 more projects are undergoing environmental assessment.

Hydroelectricity supplies 34 percent of the country’s energy, while thermal power stations provide 63 percent, and the remaining three percent is generated by NCRE.

In 2008 the government of socialist former president Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) enacted a law to foment NCRE, such as biomass from agricultural waste, small hydropower stations, and wind, solar and geothermal energies.

According to the renewable energy law, from 2010 on, five percent of energy supplied by electricity generators with capacity of more than 200 megawatts must come from NCRE or from hydropower plants with capacities below 40,000 kilowatts.

The proportion of NCRE is to increase by 0.5 percent a year, and reach 10 percent of total electricity generation in 2024.

Early this year, the government of rightwing President Sebastián Piñera announced a National Energy Strategy for 2012-2030, whose aims include “more than doubling” NCRE use over the next decade, compared to the provisions of the 2008 law.

The strategy aims for large hydropower stations to provide 45 to 48 percent of the national energy mix, with the remainder being made up by thermoelectric generation.

The plan to expand hydropower development relies on the vast water resources of Chile’s southern Patagonia area, especially in the Aysén region, 1,700 km south of Santiago.

The pristine wilderness region of Aysén has some of the largest reserves of fresh water on the planet, and great biodiversity, according to environmental groups.

According to Orrego, who is the international coordinator for Patagonia Without Dams, a worldwide campaign opposed to building dams on rivers in the wilderness area, the government strategy “gives strong backing to energy mega-businesses, which are closely related and provide feedback to the mining mega-business” in this country, the world’s premier producer of copper.

CODELCO, the state-owned copper corporation, indicates that over the next seven years 97 billion dollars are to be invested in mining projects, a sum greater than Chile’s total mining investments in the past 25 years.

“That is the heart of Chile’s energy problem,” said Orrego, referring to the voracious demand for energy of the mining industry, located mainly in the north of the country.

The large energy companies involved in mining projects “don’t pay for water rights, and they don’t pay compensation for the destruction of the environment, the river basins, or the landscape,” Orrego said.

The Italian corporation Enel, which controls Endesa Chile, is responsible for the construction of the HidroAysén complex of dams, in association with the Chilean company Colbún. And Energía Austral, owned by Australia-based Origin Energy and Anglo-Swiss mining company Xstrata, is planning to build the Río Cuervo hydropower station, also in Aysén.

In the view of economist Jorge Rodríguez Grossi, who served as energy minister in the government of former president Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), the environmentalists’ opposition is “irrational.”

“Hydroelectricity has been a mainstay of the Central Grid System, and from an environmental point of view, electricity produced with water power is one of the cleanest forms of energy there are,” he told IPS.

“Given that water is a resource that Chile has, it is quite irrational to object to its use,” he argued.

Rodríguez Grossi, now dean of the Faculty of Economics at Alberto Hurtado University, said NCREs “are still lagging in terms of technology, and are expensive and inefficient. By law, the Chilean electricity service seeks to use the most economic and efficient forms of energy.”

As for proposals that the north of Chile should develop non-conventional energy sources, in order to circumvent the need for lengthy power lines stretching all the way from the south, Rodríguez Grossi said the country’s northern Atacama desert “has solar radiation levels among the highest in the world, and the nation also has abundant geothermal resources, but the technologies are not cheap, and they are not efficient.”

Environmentalists, who have taken their campaign against the mega-dams to the courts, scored a major victory on May 11, when the Supreme Court ordered a halt to construction of the Río Cuervo dam.

The decision was based on a report by the National Geology and Mining Service describing the dangers posed to the local population due to the project’s location on a geological fault.

“Río Cuervo is one of the first cases in which citizens’ protests achieved a response from the courts,” Hernando Silva, head of the legal section of the Citizen’s Observatory, a local human rights group, told IPS.

“The ruling sets a precedent for recognition by the courts of the arguments of civil society organisations that bring to light the problems in the way hydroelectric projects have been approved,” he said.

Rodríguez Grossi, in contrast, said the court rulings blocking hydroelectric projects have no environmental basis “and, in general, projects that have received environmental approval have not been subsequently questioned.”

He said the country should encourage the production of electricity with every resource at its disposal, “as well as with resources it can bring in from abroad.”

Orrego, however, said that forging ahead with hydropower projects “is the worst thing Chile could do in terms of energy development. We should opt for a distributed pattern of electricity generation, with much smaller-scale projects scattered throughout the country.” (END)

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