United World Project


Chile’s desert, a source of clean energy

25 June 2021   |   , ,
By Alberto Barlocci

There are several solar power plants in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. An experience that teaches us to look at the development of a territory in a different way.

Economic development also includes the notion of transforming the weaknesses of a region into strengths. This often depends on our ability to look at a region in this way and transform the disadvantages into sources of wealth. So, a lot depends on how we look at the region.

In addition to the mineral resources – which are considerable – what else could the Atacama Desert offer to development? It is the driest region of the world, an extensive area practically inhabited only along the coast. Impregnable, crossed by barren mountain ranges which become offshoots of the Andes. The desert is largely sterile to agriculture and expanding dangerously, given the scarcity of rain in northern Chile. But that’s just one way of looking at it. The high daytime temperatures and the intense solar radiation can be transformed into energy sources, and the whole desert could represent a new avant-garde frontier for the country.

This is what the builders of solar power plants have begun to think, which are multiplying with beneficial increases of renewable energy to the point that at certain times of the year the cost is virtually zero. The latest was inaugurated just a week ago. It is one of the largest solar thermal power plants ever built and located in in the middle of the desert at Cerro Dominador.

The new plant, the largest of its kind in Latin America, uses photovoltaic panels spread over an area of one thousand hectares, which reflect light and heat on a huge column 250 meters high that contains a saline solution. The overheating of these fluids is transmitted to a water deposit which, in turn, produces steam that sets a turbine in motion. The capacity is 210 Megawatts. It is estimated that at maximum power the plant can supply 382,000 homes on a constant basis. This avoids the emission of 630,000 tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the exhaust gases of 135 cars in one year. The investment was 1.3 billion dollars and generated 1,500 jobs for the construction of 80 buildings and management of the plant.

The project is part of the plan to reduce carbon emissions compared to national energy needs, a plan that makes extensive use of wind, geothermal and solar energy, multiplying its potential by ten in the last six years. The current capacity of solar energy is about 2,700 megawatts, capable of covering about 11% of the country’s daily energy demand. The “leap” made towards renewable energies is based on the effort of about 200 power plants scattered throughout the territory, from wind power plants, which also continue to grow, to hydroelectric and geothermal sources. There are 31 solar power plants, many of which are already in operation while others finishing the development phase.

Overall, alternative renewable sources in Chile are currently covering 23% of energy demand, producing over 5,800 megawatts. The initial goal of reaching 2025 has therefore been exceeded, covering 20% of energy needs with non-conventional renewable energies. The energy plan currently in full development aims at the goal of obtaining 70% of the energy needed from clean sources in 2050, but the prospect is that by that date 100% of the energy used comes from alternative sources. Not only that, but Chile could become an exporter of energy produced from renewable sources.