Imagine your country has 2,653 miles of southern Pacific coastline, but only averages 110 miles east to west.
And your Atacama desert, one of the hottest places on earth, receives one of the highest concentrations of solar energy in the world, measured in watts per square foot.
Well, along those Pacific beaches, once you shoo off the surfers, along the country’s southern coast are two sections of land buffeted by winds known by mariners for centuries as the “Roaring Forties” and “Furious Fifties,” not to mention the “Screaming Sixties” as you approach Cape Horn. These areas were given their names by eighteenth and nineteenth century sailors whose unfortunate task it was to travel around the tip of South America. The latitudes between 40° – 50° and 50° – 60° south maintain some of the highest speed and most consistent winds on Earth, blowing from west to east.
So, sounds like a renewable energy dream, right?
Well, not according to Chile’s multinational GE Energy's Chile mining division head Hugo Silva, who stated that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power cannot fully replace established the country’s current thermo-electrical capacity on Chile's northern Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande grid and meet the expanding energy demand of the country's economically vital mining industry. Silva said, "We think it (renewable energy) is going to grow, but it can never be a replacement for traditional power sources.
Renewables in general don't produce power constantly, where as mines have a constant demand for energy. Basically, if you have wind it will save fuel when it is working. If there's no wind however, you still have to have the traditional thermo plants generating electricity. Wind will never be able to replace the traditional power sources in the north of Chile."
Why is Silva so opposed to advancing renewable power, given Chile’s potential?
Because mining operations are currently the biggest consumers of SING’s electricity, which generates around 99 percent of its power from fossil-fueled thermal power plants.
Even worse for mining profits, the industry is coming under increasing pressure to reduce its massive carbon footprint in line with international standards.
But still, there are signs that Santiago’s traditional servitude to the country’s mining interests may be shifting. Last week Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and Energy Minister Rodrigo Alvarez released a National Energy Strategy (2012-2030) for the country, which does in fact address national needs for increased energy from renewables.
Among the six priority areas outlined in “Energy for the Future” are efforts by the administration to make Chile’s electricity sector in the long term cleaner, more secure and more cost-effective.
The report acknowledges that Chile has extraordinary solar, geothermal, wind, mini-hydro, ocean and biomass/biogas resources which as yet only contribute three percent to the nation’s electricity production.
Political support for renewable energy is also building, as in January the Chilean Senate approved legislation stipulating that by 2020, 20 percent of the country’s electricity power generation should come from non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) sources.
Two years ago Pinera initiated the concept of advancing Chilean renewable energy, though he has since backpedaled, telling his fellow Chileans during his 21 May 2010 “Presidential Message,” “Although Chile is poor in fossil fuels, it is rich in developing a renewable and clean energy future with solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and bioenergy energy sources. The government will promote, with technical advice from leading countries such as Spain, France and the United States, a powerful development plan for renewable and clean energy, in order that by 2020, 20 percent of our energy will come from these sources.”
So, who’s going to win the national debate? The mining companies, a traditional major source of government revenues, or the environmentalists and scientists outlining the country’s vast and untapped renewable energy potential?
The answer at this point is about as clear as the weather off Cape Horn.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com
Dr. John C.K. Daly is the chief analyst for Oilprice.com, Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European…