PV Milestone for Chile

Deployment of renewable energy in South America is poised to move up a gear with work due to begin in earnest on the Calama 1 photovoltaic (PV) project in Chile. The 9 MW plant, which received final approval in January 2010, is said to be the continent’s first multi-megawatt solar facility with an environmental licence and should be operational by the end of the year.

The decision to go ahead with Calama 1 is the most dramatic result so far of a policy decision by the Chilean authorities to increase the use of the country’s abundant renewable resources, including solar energy. (The project is not in the region struck by the recent earthquake).

Under Chile’s new energy law 20.257 (which promotes production of renewable energy and which will take effect during 2010) 5% of total production in new energy contracts must be provided by non-conventional sources. By 2024 it must be 10% of total energy production (some 3410 MW).

In contrast to Europe, PV energy in Chile will not be financed by feed-in tariffs, but required under a mandate to local electric generating companies. The only tool that Chile currently uses to promote solar energy is via the government’s Corfo agency for economic development that finances feasibility studies for projects, which in most cases amount to 3% of the total cost. This led to questions in the country over whether enough was being done to promote renewables.

The main objectives of the Chilean state are twofold: to increase electrical coverage in rural areas, benefiting the 15% of the population (about 2.25 million people) who live in them, and to use the country’s enormous solar potential to reduce dependence on imported electrical energy from neighbouring states.

For that reason, for example, the Rural Electrification Project (PER) in the northern region of Coquimbo has installed 3000 PV systems financed with a 70% state subsidy to cover administrative, operating, and maintenance costs of the equipment.

The background to Chile’s decision to more aggressively promote renewables dates back to 2004. In that year primary energy consumption in Chile comprised 39% oil, 19% natural gas, 18% hydroelectric energy, 10% coal and 14% wood and other sources.

The statistics demonstrate the nation’s dependence on nearby countries and the need to import huge amounts of natural gas and oil from Argentina to meet the increasing demand of its domestic market and to maintain its level of economic growth.

The reality of the situation left the Chilean government obliged to follow a new course to reduce the enormous cost of importation, adopting a series of measures with the aim of reducing the exposure of its own energy matrix to fossil fuels, of which it lacks sufficient quantities of its own.

However, in spite of its great potential with regard to alternative energy resources such as solar, wind and geothermal power, Chile has until now not invested sufficiently to take full advantage of the opportunities they present.

In 2005 the Asociación Nacional para la Energia Solar (ACESOL) carried out a study that concluded that in the country there were only 6000 m2 of solar panels installed, of which the majority was being used to heat water for residential use, with only a small portion used to generate electricity.

In August 2006, the newly elected President Michelle Bachelet, decided to allocate new funds to promote projects in the alternative energy sector produced by the National Energy Committee.

In the same year, thanks to collaboration with the French company Transenergie, the Chilean government published a market study, to assess and define the future supply and demand for solar energy in the country.

Indexes of radiation detected show that from region I to IV (the country’s north) radiation oscillates between 4200–4800 kcal/m2 per day, between the V and VIII area (centre) the value approaches 3400 kcal/m2, while in the rest of the country it was shown to be 3000 kcal/m2. This means that there is a surface area of around 4000 square kilometres particularly suitable for the installation of photovoltaic solar panels and thermal collectors.

To date, Chile has utilised solar thermal energy mostly in the northern region of the country where there is one of the highest solar radiation levels in the world, especially in the area of Arica, Parinacota, San Pedro de Atacama and Coquimbo, where it even exceeds the Sahara desert.

Last April a weather station was deployed to measure horizontal solar radiation in the area of San Pedro di Atacama, one of the most arid areas of the country and of the world. This flow of data will be used to assess with great precision all those parameters necessary for the construction of the six PV central units which are planned by the government over the course of the next few years.

The PV central station Calama 1 will be built 3.5 km from the city of the same name, in the region of Antofagasta, with panels occupying a surface area of around 65 hectares.

The capacity planned is 9 MW with a voltage connection of 23 kv. The energy produced will be gradually re-inserted into the existing electrical network of the Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande (SING) to be used across the entire area, where numerous companies from the mining sector currently operate.

Spanish PV specialist Solarpack will develop the plant and has dealt with the entire planning stage, including assessment of its social and economic impact with all the municipalities that will benefit from the project.

The estimated cost of Calama 1 is about US$40 million, with the total for all six stations about $240 million. Construction timeframe is expected to be from seven to nine months and the station is anticipated to be operational towards the end of 2010.

Once operational, the Calama 1 PV project will require only three employees to carry out routine maintenance operations, with the entire monitoring system controlled remotely in Chile and Spain.

— Mauro Nogarin

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