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SANTIAGO, Aug 27 2010 (IPS) - Controversial plans to build the Barrancones thermoelectric plant near a protected area in the northern Chilean region of Coquimbo were cancelled Friday, but not before reviving the debate on other projects for polluting coal-fired power stations.
“Now Barrancones is being talked about as if it were the only project of its kind,” Lorenzo Núñez, head of the Mother Earth Defence Committee (CODEMAT) in Tarapacá region, over 1,700 kilometres north of Santiago, told IPS.
For years CODEMAT has opposed the construction of two coal-fired thermoelectric plants close to the Chanavayita fishing cove, 54 kilometres south of Iquique, the capital of Tarapacá.
They are the Pacífico plant, a project of the Chilean company Río Seco, and the Patache project belonging to Compañía Eléctrica Tarapacá, which is controlled by Endesa, a Spanish energy giant.
CODEMAT, made up of groups of local residents and social organisations, organised a National Meeting of Social Movements Against Coal-Burning Thermoelectric Plants, running Thursday to Saturday Aug. 26-28 in Iquique.
Other such plants that are being called into question include Castilla, owned by MPX Energía de Chile which is linked to Brazilian entrepreneur Eike Batista, and Endesa’s Punta Alcalde station, both located in the northern region of Atacama. Projected plants are also meeting with local resistance in the northern city of Arica and the southern city of Coronel.
This month, an agreement was reached between the company and the municipal government for construction to continue, but the citizens’ organisations vow they will keep fighting the plant.
In other parts of the country ground is about to be broken for several more coal-fired plants, and a handful of others are in the process of being built.
The meeting in Iquique coincides with the debate raised by the Barrancones project, belonging to the Franco-Belgian GDF Suez company, which received the go-ahead from authorities in Coquimbo Wednesday Aug. 25.
Protests against the plant and political reactions from some sectors led rightwing President Sebastián Piñera to negotiate the relocation of the 540-megawatt power company, announced the next day.
Originally the plant site was to be only a few kilometres away from the Punta de Choros fishing cove and a national reserve for endangered Humboldt penguins, which are tourist areas.
But this Friday GDF Suez decided to cancel the project definitively.
However, local residents who would be affected by projected coal-fired plants all over the country are on the alert. They have not been reassured by Piñera’s promises of zoning and bans on locating polluting projects near protected areas.
Nor are they convinced by the president’s avowed intent to increase the share of non-conventional renewable energies (NCRE) from the current 3.4 percent of the energy mix, to 20 percent by 2020.
Chile’s total installed capacity is close to 13,000 megawatts, 31.8 percent of which is generated by hydroelectric power. If the projects in the pipeline are approved, the share of electricity generated from coal would rise from 17 percent to 30 percent in coming decades, according to official estimates.
Environmental organisations welcomed the president’s decision to relocate the Barrancones plant, calling it a “citizen’s victory,” but they said they would keep watching the company’s next moves.
Worryingly, there are moves to build another coal-fired power plant in the vicinity of Punta de Choros, where CAP, a Chilean company, is applying for permission from environmental authorities for its Cruz Grande project.
“We convened this national meeting because we believe that the struggle by individual coastal or urban communities is not enough. We need national coordination that is capable of tackling social, environmental, legal and political angles and of organising mass demonstrations,” said Núñez.
“Coal-burning thermal power stations are the cheapest, but they emit pollutants that seriously affect local people and wildlife, as well as greenhouse gases” responsible for global warming, Luis Cifuentes, a researcher at the Catholic University’s Environment Centre, told IPS.
However, ensuring the country’s electricity supply appears to take precedence.
In Cifuentes’ view, if the planned coal-fired plants are not built — in areas where they would have the least impact — then huge hydroelectric stations or nuclear power plants would be needed, options that are also criticised by environmentalists and public opinion. Neither gains in energy efficiency nor NCRE would be enough in the immediate term, he said.
“It’s true that NCRE cannot provide for mass energy needs right now, but that is because they have never been taken seriously,” Marcelo Mena, head of the Sustainability Research Centre at the private Andrés Bello University, told IPS. It will be difficult to prevent the advent of new coal-fired plants, he said.
Mena said that to prevent serious environmental consequences, a law setting caps on emissions from these plants, prepared by the previous government which ended its term of office in March, should be approved urgently.
The rise in electricity consumption is due to industrial demand, especially from copper mining in the north of Chile, the expert said.
“This demand is not being evaluated from a strategic point of view by the government. So far, economic criteria have prevailed, while the local and global environmental consequences of pollution have been left out of the debate,” Mena said.
“The fundamental question is: energy for whom? If we stopped supplying electricity to the mining companies, no doubt there’d be enough for the rest of the country,” complained Núñez, as he called for replacing coal with NCRE.
To develop renewable energies more rapidly, Mena proposed that Chile should manufacture the equipment needed for NCRE, such as wind turbines or solar panels, with a view to becoming the major producer of these items for the Southern Cone of South America.
On the positive side, most analysts believe the recent and ongoing reforms of Chile’s environmental institutions will in future help to minimise conflicts arising from energy and production projects and their negative impacts.
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