A proposal for a new solar energy project in Chile’s Atacama desert has been given the green light by the country’s environmental assessment agency, the Servicio de Evaluación Ambiental (SEA), and is set to become easily the largest project of its kind ever to come to the region.
At 162 megawatts (MW), the Parque Solar Diego de Almagro will produce over one hundred times the energy of the current largest operational solar plant in Chile, the 1.4 MW La Huayca project in the northern region of Tarapacá.
Chile currently generates 873 MW or 4.9 percent of its energy through non-conventional renewable sources such as wind and solar power. The new US$420 million (CLP202 billion) solar park, commissioned by Irish company Mainstream Renewable Power, will cover 143 acres (354 ha) of land and contribute greatly to the government’s current target of 10 percent renewable energy by 2024.
According to the Chilean energy ministry’s renewable energy department, the Centro de Energías Renovables, SEA has approved a combined total of 2.05 gigawatts of solar projects for Chile,with 3.9 MW worth of projects currently under construction. The Parque Solar Diego de Almagro project, set to begin construction in January, will help power Northern Chile’s rapidly expanding mining industry, and promote the practice of regionally produced energy consumption.
Per square foot, the Atacama desert has the highest capacity for solar radiation in the world – more so than the Sahara desert, Arabian desert, or Australia’s Great Sandy desert. Using 2009 energy figures, it was estimated that solar panels covering just 10,556 acres (4,272 ha) – equivalent to 9,454 football fields – of the Atacama would be enough to supply Chile’s entire energy need.
An environmental impact study is currently underway for another Mainstream Renewable Power funded project, the Parque Eólico Sarco wind park, also in the Atacama. The US$500 million (CLP240 billion) project proposes to install 95 wind turbines with a combined capacity of 240 MW.