Technological innovation

Solar energy irrigates vineyards in Chile’s Atacama desert

A Chilean fresh fruit producer teams up with a German renewable energy firm to bring life to the driest desert on earth.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012 Category: Business - Technology - Enviroment
Vineyards in the Copiapó Valley. (Photo by Duncan+Gladys/Flickr) Vineyards in the Copiapó Valley. (Photo by Duncan+Gladys/Flickr)

Amid the stark orange hills and green vineyards of the Copiapó Valley in the vast Atacama desert, a lone solar park has sprouted.


It is operated by Subsole, one of Chile's biggest fresh fruit producers, in partnership with the German renewable energy company, Kraftwerk.


"We really wanted to tap into the opportunity that the Atacama Desert offers," Jose Miguel Fernandez from Subsole told the BBC. "This project is in line with our commitment to the environment for future generations and a way to get other fruit producers to hopefully follow our path."


For Subsole, the aim of the project is to obtain 100 percent of the energy required to pump water from deep underground reservoirs to its 655 acres (265 ha) of vineyards in the Copiapó Valley, from solar power.


The Atacama also provides a unique opportunity for the German renewable energy company.


“In Chile you have the highest solar radiation levels in the world,” said a Kraftwerk representative. “The radiation is two-fold higher here in Chile than in Germany, so the electricity that you can generate is two times cheaper here than in Germany, so you have more energy to sell.”


The Copiapó plant, which has a capacity of 300 kWp (kilowatt peak) - enough to power a 20-story building - is a pioneer in the Atacama.


Roberto Jordan, from Kraftwerk's subsidiary in Chile, told the BBC that Chile’s northern desert has all the ingredients for a solar-powered boom.


“There is enough sun, there is enough land, so we should really explore further," Jordan said.


The new plant comes as Chile is gearing to meet the target of a 20 percent increase in renewable energies by 2020, a target set by President Sebastián Piñera in his first term in office.


It’s a target that is so ambitious it has raised eyebrows among energy experts around the world, but confidence remains high that the country will meet that target.


“It is quite ambitious,” said Jon Farmer, editor of Latin American Newsletters, “but out of all the countries in Latin America, I think that one nation that would be able to meet such a target would be Chile."