Chile is suffering an energy crisis.

By Matthew Owens

Chile is in something of an energy crisis. In recent years (2010 & 2011) Chile has suffered from a number of power blackouts and although the cause of these were in some part due to technical problems, the disruption has prompted concern that shortages in supply could become a permanent feature in the Chilean grid. The South American country currently imports 65% of its energy needs and some 97% of its petroleum. 67% of electricity is produced by thermoelectric means, the other 33% coming from hydroelectric power. The Chilean Energy Strategy, unveiled earlier this year, seeks to address these problems, outlining several targets to be reached by 2030:

1. Growing with energy efficiency.

2. Launching of non-conventional renewable energy.

3. Increasing hydroelectric power, decreasing the dependance on imported materials.

4. Improving infrastructure

5. Towards a more competitive electricity market

6. Sustained advance in regional electricity networks

The overall pattern of energy sources for all sectors in Chile, shows a similarly difficult picture as the majority of energy comes from imported fossil fuels.

Source: The National Energy Commission (2010 figures. Wood & Biogas, not shown here, account for less than 1% of the total)

Little wonder then that successive govenments have pushed for the further development of hydroelectric power. The latest, and highly controvesial, project in Patagonian Aysén is backed by the current and unpopular President, Sebastián Piñera. The HydoAysén hydroelectric project proposes 5 dams in the Aysén Region, 2 on the Baker river and 3 on the river Pascua. The installations, in combination, are thought to be able to provide 2.5MW of power and outputting 18.43 GWh over the year. Nevertheless there have been many protests against the project on ecological grounds.

“Hidroaysen is a hydroelectric project that will build and operate five dams in the Chilean Patagonia, two in the Baker River and three in the Pascua River, flooding 5910 hectares, equivalent to the surface of  Manhattan Island in New York. To provide energy for Santiago and new mining projects in the north of the country, Hidroaysen is looking to install 3800 towers, each 60 metres tall, over 2000 kms, making it one of the most extensive electric power lines in the world. It would join the interconnected central system at the Lo Prado Túnel, thus making its way through half of one of the longest countries in the world.”

Given that the successful operation of the dams requires the flooding of large swathes of Patagonian forest area, then, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been noteable opposition from Greenpeace Chile:

“Aprobar el proyecto significa hacer oídos sordos a la opinión pública, al poder legislativo, al reglamento, a los evidentes conflictos de interés que han minado la transparencia del proceso, y especialmente a las múltiples denuncias por irregularidades, faltas y presiones que aquí han reinado. Exigimos que este proceso se detenga y se aplique el sentido común. Apelamos al sentido común del ejecutivo para evitar este desastre”.

“To approve the project means to be deaf to public opinion, the legislative power, the rules, the obvious conflicts of interest that have undermined the transparency of the process, and especially to the many complaints of irregularities, faults and pressures that have reigned here . We demand that this process will stop and apply common sense. We appeal to common sense of the executive to avoid this disaster. “

Undoubtedly at least in part due to the civil unrest seen in the South and in Santiago, one of the HidroAysén partners Colbun recently froze their involvement in the project. However, the tensions seen in the country over the last year are perhaps not simply due to single issues, such as the Patagonian ecology, or the mishandling of the Aysén energy plans, but rather to a plethora of issues surrounding the future direction of the country. The President is forging a conservative programme in the country and clearly has many detractors currently, the student movement is largely anti-government  and the green voice is strongly against. Furthermore, there is a view that the increase in power demands come in no small part from the mining industry in the north which, while productive for Chile, is often run by large foreign international consortiums. It could be that Colbun’s pullout reflects a fear of going down with an unpopular leader; they may resume their enthusiam for the project at a future date. The question remains, will the Chilean people be sufficiently placated with the inevitable replacement of Piñera, or will the opposition to the intertwined philosophies of neo-liberal politics and big business remain?



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