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SANTIAGO, Jan 15 2016 (IPS) - A novel energy project in Chile will combine a pumped-storage hydroelectric plant operating on seawater and a solar plant, to provide a steady supply of clean energy to a fishing village in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest.
The idea may seem unlikely, given the extreme aridity and lack of water in northern Chile, where copper, gold and silver mining corporations use most of the water and energy consumed.
But the initiative has drawn the interest of local and foreign investors. And in 2015 it won the Avonni National Innovation Award granted by the Chilean Innovation Forum, the National TV Station TVN, El Mercurio – the country’s largest newspaper – and the Economy Ministry.
“Nowhere in the world have they managed to offer clean energy 24/7 at competitive prices, without subsidies,” said Juan Andrés Camus, general manager and one of the two founders of Valhalla Energía, the local company that is carrying out the project.
“The convergence of these three elements is unique, and it’s not a stroke of genius on our part but a wonderful gift of nature,” he told IPS.
The company was founded on the premise that Chile is a country that is poor in the “energies of the past, but infinitely rich in energies of the future.”
With an investment of 400 million dollars, the Espejo (Mirror) de Tarapacá will essentially operate as a big battery that will store up energy. Construction is to begin in late 2016 and it is set to come onstream in 2020.
The project includes the installation of a pumped-storage hydroelectric plant, which will pump seawater up a cliff on the coast using solar energy, to a natural storage basin at an altitude of 600 metres.
In the night-time, when no solar energy is available, the plant will generate electricity by releasing the stored water, which will rush down through the same tunnels. This will provide a steady round-the-clock supply of energy – 24 hours a day/seven days a week – overcoming the problem of intermittency of renewable energy sources.
El Espejo will generate 300 MW of electricity in Caleta San Marcos, in the extreme northern region of Tarapacá, 100 km south of the city of Iquique.
At the same time, the company will build Cielos de Tarapacá, a 1,650-hectare solar park in nearby Pintados that will produce 600 MW of energy, with a projected investment of nearly one billion dollars.
The solar project, which is waiting for an environmental permit, will operate with single-axis tracking technology in order to follow the sun during the day from east to west.
Camus said the solar park will be so large that “if it began to operate in 2015 it would be the biggest in the world.”
At night, the plant will continue generating solar power, thanks to the energy stored in Espejo.
The salient aspect of the two projects is that they will harness the natural attributes that Chile has in abundance: seawater, coastal cliffs, and the Atacama Desert’s solar radiation.
This will avoid the need to build dams and reduce construction of underground tunnels by up to 80 percent, according to the promoters of the project, who say it is one of the most innovative renewable energy initiatives in the world.
“More than in the technology employed, the innovation of Espejo de Tarapacá lies in the more efficient use of geography, which makes it possible to build the plant at the lowest possible cost,” said Camus.
“The big opportunity is in the efficient use of the territory, more than in the technological barrier,” he added. Chile is a long, narrow country between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes mountains to the east. It has 6,435 km of coast line.
Valhalla has been working closely with the people of Caleta San Marcos.
The fishing village’s 300 inhabitants, who make a living from small-scale fishing and harvesting shellfish and giant kelp, were initially wary, afraid the initiative would have a negative impact on local marine resources.
Working groups were set up to discuss things with the local community, who asked for advisers with expertise in marine issues and a lawyer to support them in technical and legal aspects.
Finally, after months of work, the company signed agreements with the local fishing union and the residents’ association pledging to make contributions to the local community. They also agreed on a set of principles to guarantee transparent management of the plant, as well as a mechanism to address problems in case damage to the sea is detected.
“This has been beneficial, and I hope other communities can have access to this and will be able to decide for themselves, but with information, equal opportunity, while defending their rights, so that ignorance doesn’t become a curb on development,” said Genaro Collao, president of the local fishing union of Caleta San Marcos.
“At this tipping point the decision is: I put money in your pocket or I improve your life,” he told IPS by phone from the village. “Money in my pocket is going to last one day, one week, one month. But life is an ongoing legacy, that’s the concept.”
This South American nation of 17.6 million people has a total installed capacity of 20,203 MW of electricity. The interconnected Central and Norte Grande power grids account for 78.38 percent and 20.98 percent of total electric power, respectively.
Of the country’s total energy supply, 58.4 percent is generated by diesel fuel, coal and natural gas, while the rest comes from renewable energy sources – mainly large hydropower dams.
Only 13.5 percent comes from unconventional renewable sources like wind power (4.57 percent), solar (3.79 percent), mini-dams (2.8 percent) and biomass (2.34 percent).
In 2014, the government of Michelle Bachelet adopted a new energy agenda that set a target for 70 percent of Chile’s electric power to come from renewable sources by 2050.
“Seventy percent of the greenhouse gases in Chile come from the energy sector,” Environment Minister Pablo Badenier has told IPS. “That means it is our commitments in energy that will enable us to live up to the pledge to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030.”
“Looking at the 2050 energy road map, it appears viable that by the year 2050, 70 percent of power generation in Chile could come from renewable sources. That is what makes it possible to seriously commit to this goal regarding greenhouse gases.”
Studies indicate that Atacama has one of the highest concentrations of solar energy in the world. According to experts, the entire country could be supplied with electricity if less than 0.5 percent of the desert’s surface were covered by solar panels.
“Projects like this one could offer an opportunity by putting Chile at the forefront of development of green technology that does not require people to pay more for it,” said Camus.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes
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