Wind Energy Catches on in Chile

It would a great exaggeration to say that Chile is “big” on wind energy. This renewable source of energy — which is now one of Europe’s biggest energy producers — currently accounts for only 2 Megawatts (MW) of Chile’s 12,700 MW of energy production capacities.

Still, it is fair to say that Chile is beginning to open its eyes to wind energy’s huge potential: 23 wind energy parks are currently undergoing feasibility studies at various points around the country. The largest now under study would be located to the southeast of the Region III town of Caldera. When finished, the wind park’s production capacity will be 138 MW of energy a year.

The Canela wind park, located on the coast near the Region IV town of Illapel, represents another significant undertaking. In November 2006, 11 companies pledged to invest US$36 million in the project. And last week the wind park project received a significant boost when Norway’s SN Power Company announced it will invest US$100 million to construct 27 new generators in the same location. The wind energy park is expected to generate 50 MW after construction finishes in 2009.

Experts say wind power is catching on now due, in part, to sustained increases in energy costs. Oil prices continue to hover around US$70 per barrel, and unusually cold winter weather has forced Argentina to slow down gas shipments to Chile several times this winter. This has forced many energy generating plants to switch reluctantly to much higher priced diesel fuel to run their generators. Diesel fuel costs up to four times as much as natural gas.

This current reality makes the wind energy alternative appear to be quite economical. Experts say it costs between US$50 and US$55 to generate a MW of energy. That figure is quite a bargain, compared with solar-generated electricity and diesel generated electricity, which cost up to US$900 and US$200 per MW, respectively. Wind-generated electricity does cost more than natural gas, at US$41 per MW of energy, if it is available.

Additionally, the wind power option is getting strong support from academics and environmental experts, who particularly value wind energy for its long-term environmental benefits. According to Pablo Garcia, a professor at Universidad Santo Tomas and Universidad Catolica, the benefits of wind energy are far reaching in Chile.

“The average temperatures in the country are going to rise as a result of global warming,” Garcia told The Santiago Times. “There is going to be a lot of air pressure over the continent. Air will be forced to rise, and wind will flow faster along the coast (…) wind energy is expensive, but it is worth it. It is ecologically sound and half as expensive as building a dam. More importantly, it will last much longer.”

Despite these apparent benefits, wind energy does have its opponents in Chile. Residents near Chile’s existing wind parks complain that the landscape is contaminated by the ungainly structures. And some experts are wary about the uncertain frequencies of wind, saying many parks only generate energy 40 percent of the time. Additionally, some investors have been put off by the high initial investments needed to construct the wind parks.

Juan Walker, co-director of the wind company Servicios Eólicos S.A., sees the near future of wind power in Chile as “timid and slow.” Still, he goes on to say that “the medium and long-term forecasts for wind energy in Chile are good.” He believes that Chile can easily generate between 3,000 and 5,000 MW of energy per year by means of wind parks.

Many other organizations, both private and public, agree with Walker and are pushing hard for further wind energy development.

SN Power’s announcement came on the heels of news that British company Seawind filed an environmental impact report (EIA) for an ambitious renewable energy project that would create Chile’s largest wind farm. Its park — proposed for Ovalle in Region IV — would generate 74 MW. It includes 37 wind turbines and will cost US$150 million.

Meanwhile, Chile’s government in June unveiled various projects under evaluation as part of the Unconventional Renewable Energy Law (ERNC). These initiatives are designed to mitigate Chile’s dependence on nonrenewable energy.

The largest project currently under evaluation is a wind farm in Region V presented by Handels und Finanz AG Chile S.A., which would cost US$17 million. Five wind turbines, each creating 1.8 MW of electricity, would be connected to a central control which would then dispatch the electricity into the central electrical system of the city of Laguna Verde (ST, June 8).

Additionally, the government’s Economic and Development Agency (CORFO), has funded 12 wind monitoring studies and submitted 28 proposals for wind parks in 2006.

Matt Malinowski is an editor for The Santiago Times. This article was republished with permission from The Santiago Times.


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