Santiago | Aug 5 2014 (IPS) — With the first solar thermal power plant in Latin America, Chile hopes to begin to alleviate its energy crisis, which threatens to further drive up the high cost of electricity and to hinder the growth of investment, especially in the mining industry.
The first solar thermal power plant in Latin America is being built in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, an area that has one of the highest levels of solar radiation in the world.
“We have a structural problem, which is that energy in Chile is very costly, and this not only represents a hurdle for economic growth but also hurts the poor,” government spokesman Álvaro Elizalde told Tierramérica.
This means, he added, “that we have to simultaneously increase the energy supply to bring down prices while promoting non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) sources.”
The Spanish company Abengoa Solar, which has been operating in Chile since 1987, won the public tender in January to develop a solar tower plant with 110 MW capacity and 17.5 hours of thermal energy storage in molten salt.
The Concentración Solar de Potencia de Cerro Dominador plant, which began to be built in May by the company’s local subsidiary, Abengoa Solar Chile, is to come online in 2017 and will have a useful life of 30 years.
The plant will cost one billion dollars to build, and an additional 750,000 dollars will go towards the construction of a photovoltaic solar plant that will double the power generated to 210 MW, spokespersons for the company in Chile told Tierramérica.
Abengoa will receive direct subsidies from the Chilean government and the European Union, as well as financing from the Inter-American Development Bank, the German development bank KFW, the Clean Technology Fund and the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.
The plant is being installed in the municipality of María Elena, in the region of Antofagasta, 1,340 km north of Santiago in the Atacama desert, the most arid part of the planet, where the sun shines year-round.
Instead of solar panels, the plant will use 10,600 huge mirrors – heliostats – that span 140 square metres and follow the sun by means of a dual-axis tracking system that will reflect solar rays and heat to a 243-metre tower which will bear a resemblance to Sauron’s tower in the Lord of the Rings movies.
To achieve continuous on demand 24/7 electricity production, the plant will have a thermal energy system designed and developed by the Spanish firm. The heat will be transferred to molten salt, which is used at night to drive 110-MW steam-powered turbines.
The plant will thus offer clean energy 24 hours a day, which is key in Antofagasta, where the constantly growing mining industry already absorbs 90 percent of the power supply in the production of mainly copper.
The company’s spokespersons also say the plant will prevent the emission of 643,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the emissions of 357,000 vehicles circulating for one year. It should also fully cover the residential sector’s demand for energy in the region.
University of Chile Professor Roberto Román, an expert in NCRE, told Tierramérica that solar thermal energy has several advantages over other NCRE sources, and over photovoltaic systems.
He said thermal solar plants “are capable of generating and storing energy, and in practice, that means they can operate around the clock for most of the year, solely based on energy from the sun.”
In addition, “the power generation from these plants can be combined with other fuels, such as natural gas, to ensure 100 percent accessibility. That means the electricity needed can be generated according to demand, whenever it is needed,” he said.
“If these plants operate only with solar energy they produce zero emissions,” he added, while pointing out that it is a technology that is still being developed “which means there is space for research, development and innovation.
“This is what Spain has been doing over the last 20 years, and what I dream we will be capable of doing ourselves – harnessing the marvelous sunshine that is so abundant. There is enough sunshine here to supply all of Chile several times over,” Román said.
This South American country of 17.6 million people has 18,278 MW of gross installed capacity. Of that total, 74 percent is in the Sistema Interconectado Central (the central grid), 25 percent in the Sistema Interconectado Norte Grande (the northern grid), and the rest in medium-sized grids in the southern regions of Aysén and Magallanes.
Chile imports 97 percent of the fossil fuels that it needs. Hydropower makes up 40 percent of the energy mix, which is dependent on highly polluting fossil fuels that drive thermal power stations, for the rest.
This country’s shortage of energy sources has made the cost of electricity per megawatt/hour (MWh) in Chile one of the highest in Latin America: over 160 dollars, compared to 55 dollars in Peru, 40 in Colombia and 10 in Argentina.
Since she took office again in March, socialist President Michelle Bachelet has reiterated her commitment to developing NCRE sources: wind, geothermal, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic. The government’s target is for 20 percent of the country’s electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2025.
Solar power would appear to be the main focus of energy development in Chile over the next few years, as outlined in the “energy agenda” announced by the president on May 15.
In May, the government approved 43 projects for NCRE development, with the participation of local and international companies, all of them in northern Chile and most of them involving solar photovoltaic power plants.
They would generate a combined total of 2,261 MW a year, which would increase the country’s gross installed capacity by 12.3 percent, when they all come online.
Román cautioned that, in the case of solar thermal energy, “there are still many things that must be worked out, such as how the materials and elements will behave in the aggressive desert climate and how serious and complicated the question of dust and cleaning of the mirrors will be.”
He said this, added to other problems such as water scarcity in the desert, “drive the investment up to two or four times the cost of installing solar photovoltaic plants.”
But, he stressed, solar thermal plants produce “two or three times as much power, which means the real difference in the cost of the energy is not that big.
“Because of all this, I see it as a fantastic option,” Román said. “We should jump on the bandwagon of research and development in this area, with collaboration from other countries of course, and take our place in the field of technological development.”