Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sustainable Energy for Chile

Chile has been having problems meeting its energy needs. Like many countries, it is currently facing an energy crisis due to the rise of fossil fuel prices. Today it imports about 72% of its energy in the form of gasoline, coal, and natural gas.
It seems that a lot of countries are facing the same problems; energy is becoming a scarce commodity. Is there a way to resolve the energy crisis with sustainable energy sources?

Last Saturday Morning, I witnessed a protest right on my street. The Cause of the protest is a hydroelectric dam project being developed in the southern part of Chile. The project is called HidroAysen, and it consists in making 6 hydroelectric dams in Chile’s 11th region.
I instantly remembered my sustainable energy classes at U of T, and recalled a presentation from a colleague on the theme of hydro electricity. Hydro electricity is a renewable resource, emits negligible carbon emissions from its operation, it is reliable and can compete economically with fossil fuels…
Why would people protest against it? Isn’t Hydro electricity a good thing?

This GIF was picked up from Patagonia sin Represas (Patagonia without dams) an environmental organization against the HidroAysen Project (www.patagoniasinrepresas.cl ). The reason why they disagree with the project is because of the large footprint that it will have on Chile’s natural environment, how private companies will benefit from the detriment of public land, and because the project bypassed proper environmental assessments on the grounds of being an urgent necessity. Chileans are proud of their virgin landscapes, the natural beauty of their country that is almost untouched in the South. The dams planned are located around various Andean mountains in the south which will directly change the relationship of water and land, and destroy the existing ecosystems in the surrounding areas. Environmentalists fear that many endangered species in those areas will be affected. In addition, since most of the population is located in the Central part of Chile, transmission lines would need to travel through half of Chile… scaring the landscapes, and perhaps damaging the eco-tourism that has developed.
An alternative that is proposed by the opposition is the exploitation of solar energy in the northern part of Chile (also the most arid dessert in the world). It is a rare occasion when it rains in that dessert, and they argue that it would have a lessened environmental impact since there is fewer fauna in the area.
Considering that Chile lies on the edges of tectonic plates, there is also large potential for geothermal energy. Its Coastal geography also gives opportunities for offshore wind power, and tidal energy… I am not suggesting that energy needs of tomorrow are easily solved, but I do believe that these types of projects should have a thorough environmental assessment, and have open discussions with the public.


  1. We're fighting a similar project here in Brazil, the Xingú dam project. One of the main concerns is that many ecosystems and native settlements on the edges of the river would be flooded, whereas downstream the seasonal tides would be interrupted.

    Is this also a concern for the Chilean project?

  2. It's definitely a concern. There are many environmental assessments that this project bypassed, and a lot of environmental impacts that haven't been addressed. Even though hydro electricity projects are good in terms of efficiency, I think that when a dam is involved, there are disturbances in the natural flow of water that can severely destroy ecosystems in the area, and should be studied to make a decision.

  3. I did a little poking around and interestingly the land was made private under the military regime of Pinochet. Incredible that there continues to be serious fall out from his dictatorship.

  4. Whoa! I didn't know that, but Oh man, is there ever fallout about Pinochet's regime... Just yesterday, we had some very opinionated people over and we spent hours discussing politics... Now I understand why people say; don't speak about religion and politics!

  5. Man you gotta do some hiking out there. Efforts should be made to reduce impacts, and it can be done, but hydro is many time more cost effective then, wind, tidal or solar. With good project planning they should be able to minimize impact on the ecosystem and even create new habitat. It's not really fair to export the environmental problems of oil extraction to other countries so that the view isn't ruined in Chile. For the desert check out Solar One, Two and Tres (in Nevada and Spain). The tech is still in development but its solar thermal power generation way cooler then PV. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Solar_Project#Solar_One)

  6. I would love to do some hiking... the only problem is that it's winter here... but I might still do it, haven't discarded the idea. I think the problem is not really that hydro isn't good, hydro is great. In places like Niagara falls, you can exploit the topography of the falls and get energy very efficiently. When you make a dam though, there are bigger environmental impacts. And it's not like the environmentalists want to export their energy problems on to oil extracting countries because they want their landscapes unharmed, they're just suggesting that there are other ways of producing energy in their own country that can have less of a footprint on the environment. I agree with you on solar thermal... using some stirling engines seems like such a good idea, plus with thermos like containers, you can theoretically keep producing energy at night. Photovoltaics are not that efficient, and the impacts of making them may be higher than what is sustainable... but who knows,what if someone discovers something...