By Christopher Testa
The controversy surrounding the Hydroelectric project in Aysén could signal a new dawn in renewable energy projects for Chile. Christopher Testa reports.
This Christmas, environmentalists, clean energy advocates and residents of the southern Andes alike will be happy to overlook the visit of Viejo Pascuero, the traditional bringer of festive gifts in Chile, instead hoping the New Year will herald the end of a controversial hydroelectric project.
Chile’s largest hydropower scheme, HidroAysén, involves the damming of wild rivers in a largely untouched region of Patagonia and has been the subject of legal wrangling and environmentalist protests since the dams were approved by President Sebastián Piñera in May 2011.
The Undersecretary of the Environment, Ricardo Irarrazabal, recently said Chile’s environmental assessment authority (SEA) would review the HidroAysén project in January.
The project’s future is in severe doubt given both the volume of opposition it faces and one of its operating companies, Colbún, seeking to sell its 49 per cent stake in the scheme.
In a world where energy consumption and sustainability are becoming increasingly important to the development of society and the future of the planet, renewable energy projects are always high on the agenda.
The development of renewables is a priority particularly in Chile, which has the highest consumption of electricity across Latin America but no reserves of oil or natural gas.
Hydroelectricity is the main source of power while around 97 per cent of fossil fuels must be imported into the country, a problem given neighbouring Argentina’s tendencies to ration gas supplies to Chile while strained ties with Bolivia mean Chile cannot source gas from across the Atacama.
However, the development of the hydro sector in Chile has not come without controversy or staunch opposition.
Conservationists and environmental groups have long opposed the creation of dams along the wild rivers of Patagonia, which have significant energy potential, but which the environmentalists also argue pose a great threat to the local ecosystem.
The Baker and Pascua rivers of Patagonia are two of the world’s great untouched wild rivers and are integral to major Chilean hydroelectric projects, with plans to build five dams along them as part of the HidroAysén project.
The HidroAysén project would generate considerable electricity for the national grid, around 2750 megawatts, and the transmission line from Patagonia to Santiago, a distance of nearly 2000 kilometres, is also controversial given it would pass through pristine landscapes.
Public opposition for the project is strong, even outside Patagonia, and residents of the region where the dams are to be constructed fear the effects of flooding nearly 6000 hectares will be devastating for the local ecosystem and their small communities.
Ecotourism is serious business in Patagonia, a unique part of the world where rain falls constantly, rivers run wild and endangered animals live among the forests and mountains of a largely untouched southern land.
National parks and conservation priority areas, which protect endangered species such as the Huemul, the South Andean deer endemic to the lower reaches of Chile and believed to be less than 1000 in number, will be inundated as the Patagonian rivers are dammed.
The local indigenous Mapuche people are also against the project, as they face displacement from their traditional lands and furthermore, the transmission line which will connect the hydroelectric dams to the national grid will pass through Mapuche communities.
Fighting hydroelectric projects is not new for the Mapuche, who also contested the construction of the much smaller Ralco plant, which was completed in 2004 and involved the flooding of a traditional graveyard.
Proponents of the HidroAysén project on the other hand claim Chile simply cannot do without the extra electricity generation as it struggles to increase its power generating capacity in line with development.
While President Piñera supports the hydroelectric projects, Chileans claim the wealthy businessman is out of touch with the people and that the plans are being driven by foreign owned companies rather than the interests of ordinary Chileans.
If hydroelectric projects like HidroAysén are shelved, it would be a victory for environmental groups and the people of Patagonia who have not faltered in their campaign to preserve the natural splendour and biodiversity of their land; however, it would also raise a hugely important question for Chile: how is the country going to power its development?
Chile recently announced it would recommence studies into the feasibility of using nuclear energy after the research was halted in the wake of the Japanese Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011.
While the implementation of nuclear power remains a long way off, the reopening of studies and the debate highlights the country’s immediate need to explore alternative sources of energy and the drive to greater diversity the Chilean energy sector.
Wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy are not without drawbacks and criticisms either but it may prove wise for Chile to invest in new infrastructure, particularly while its economy continues to perform strongly.
The Atacama Desert, in particular, is one of the world’s prime locations for the development of photovoltaic solar energy while the country’s wind power is significantly underdeveloped due to a lack of investment.
Geothermal and tidal energy potential should not be discounted either as the Chilean territory which snakes along the lower left coast of South America possesses around 10 per cent of the world’s active volcanoes and an incredibly lengthy coastline.
The attitudes of the Chilean people reflect the country’s unique potential to become a global pioneer when it comes to developing sources of renewable energy.
The northern port city of Arica is currently the proposed site of a thermoelectric power plant but mayor Salvador Urrutia is determined to ensure any new power plant in his city is clean and environmentally friendly.
Mr Urrutia, and the citizens of Arica, are promoting a video which condemns the thermoelectric project as a major pollutant and instead advocate for a new solar project to be built.
As Chile’s population booms and industrial development, particularly in the mining sector accelerates, the drive to fund and research renewable energy development will become increasingly important.
Chile is blessed with far greater renewable energy potential than most countries and given its current reliance on foreign fossil fuels and controversial major hydroelectric projects; the time has arrived for Chile to begin strengthening laws to promote renewable energy and the efficiency of the national power grid.
Christopher Testa is an Australian radio presenter, journalist and news producer from Australia. You can follow Christopher on twitter @cmtesta and check out the radio station The Wire.