Chile could become world leader in solar energy

In the Atacama Desert region in the country’s north, the skies are so rarely affected by humidity and clouds that the land below receives the highest amount of solar radiation of anywhere in the world.


A scientist from Chile’s Universidad Católica has completed a map that sheds new light on what the outlook may be for solar powered projects in Chile.

The map depicts the level of solar radiation reaching the ground throughout the length of the country. Before, no data existed that allowed potential investors to map and chart what their returns would be on setting up solar energy projects. Now, however, investors will be able to delineate their profit margins by using the map to predict how much energy their projects will be able to sap from the sun’s rays.

The map has also revealed surprising data on the sheer quantity of solar radiation in Chile as compared to other countries that may already have invested heavily in solar energy projects.

Germany, for example, became a leader in photovoltaic energy since revising its Feed-in tariff system as part of the Renewable Energy Sources Act. Its Finsterwalde Solar Park, at 80.7 megawatts, is the largest solar energy plant in the world. But the skies in Germany – compared to Chile’s – are filled with moisture, preventing much solar radiation from reaching the ground.

The maximum radiation obtainable in the whole of Germany is equal to that available in the southern Chilean cities of Coyhaique or Punta Arenas. The farther north in Chile, the higher the radiation. In the dry deserts of the Atacama, the sun pierces through the atmosphere with a dazzling strength, allowing maximum radiation for the energy plants.

Rodrigo Escobar, director of a masters in Energy and Engineering at the Universidad Católica, described in an interview with local newspaper El Mercurio the connection between clear skies, optimum conditions for generating photovoltaic energy, and the need for tangible data. «The project will map for the first time the entire territory of Chile, therefore providing reliable data for plants to minimise financial risks

«The atmosphere has a dense shroud of air elements in it that prevent solar radiation,» he said. «The desert has particular conditions because there are no clouds … allowing radiation to pass through the atmosphere with little change. A cloudy day with rain doesn’t let it through, therefore lowering its value on the ground.»

Using satellite data, within climatic parameters (temperature, humidity, visibility, height) to process images in visible and infra-red formats, Escobar was able to estimate radiation on the surface of the whole of Chile.

According to the professor, Chile’s future could be radically altered by new solar projects. «We are at a point where solar panels could become competitive, so that it will be cheaper and even more effective than thermoelectric plants.»