Chile bets on solar energy for future mining projects in north

U.S. firm, Solar First, says decreased costs and natural habitat make the Atacama Desert a natural fit for photovoltaic and solar thermal energy projects.  

Solar power promises to play an important role in Chile’s energy future. The Chilean government is betting on renewable energy for the future. One of the pillars of the new energy plan involves a dramatic increase in non-conventional renewable energies (known as “ERNC” in Chile, or “Energías Renovables No Convencionales,” which does not include hydro-electric projects).
In light of solar power’s projected importance, a Chilean foundation – Fundación Chile – began researching ways to jump-start the development of solar power in this tech-savvy South American country.
“We want the area of solar energy to create as much growth as the salmon industry did, which this foundation also helped promote,” said Álvaro Fischer, the president of Fundación Chile.
The foundation linked up with Solar Chile and U.S. firm First Solar, one of the largest solar panel producers in the United States.
During a First Solar seminar, “Building a solar future for Chile,” market experts and engineers pointed to California as an excellent model for Chile, due to the similarity in climate and the fact that the U.S. state now generates about 20 percent of its energy from non-conventional renewable energy sources.
According to First Solar, Chile will also benefit from a worldwide drop in the cost of photovoltaic solar projects, which has decreased to about 50 percent of its cost a few years ago.
“Today, the value is at about US$0.70 per watt, while in 2004 the same amount cost about US$2.90. Solar is now in a position to compete with diesel and natural gas plants,” said Frank De Rosa, senior vice president and negotiator at First Solar. De Rosa attributed the drop to new technology and production by Chinese factories.
Photovoltaic projects, however, are just one option for Chile: the country is also a good candidate for solar thermal energy, a technology that allows the solar panels to store energy as well as produce it, although the per-watt cost is closer to US$1.30.
First Solar says the arid Atacama Desert in northern Chile is one of the areas with the greatest potential to develop solar energy. Over the next two years, the company plans to install enough solar panels to generate 1,000 megawatts of energy.
The growth of this type of non-conventional renewable energy is especially good news for Chile’s booming mining industry. According to Fischer, the next eight years will see close to US$90 billion in investments for mining projects, which will demand increased energy and are also concentrated in Chile’s north.