Chile greenlights enormous 400-megawatt solar project

Spanish solar and wind company Ibereólica receives environmental clearance to begin construction of a US$3.3 billion renewable energy plant in Northern Chile.


Chile’s potential for solar generated power is well known, though recent developments in the country’s energy sector are set to transform this potential into reality.

In December last year, Ibereólica put in an application with Chile’s environmental impact service, the SEA, for the construction of four 100-megawatt solar thermal towers in the Antofagasta Region. The project — named María Elena — has now received clearance, and construction on the renewable energy behemoth may now begin.

María Elena will use cutting-edge technology in the form of concentrated solar power (CSP). CSP uses mirrors and lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a smaller footprint. Electricity is produced when this light is converted to heat which in turn drives turbines.

With all its CSP towers combined, María Elena is set to produce 400 megawatts. To put this figure in perspective — Chile currently generates nine megawatts of its power through solar energy, and a total of 873 megawatts via a combination of solar and other forms of non-conventional renewable energy.

In April, Enel Latin America submitted plans for a three solar projects that combined will equal the Ibereólica project in size. Should Enel receive clearance, the two companies’ solar endeavors will almost double the energy available to Chile’s matrix via non-conventional means.

As Chile’s economy grows, so does its energy demand. Solar projects in the Atacama represent a step forward in Chile’s efforts to both diversify its energy matrix, and to increase regionally specific power generation and consumption — much of energy demand is driven by the mining industry in the north.

Energy companies around the world are becoming increasingly eager to utilize northern Chile’s potential for solar energy, as solar technology becomes more advanced and affordable. 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.