Chile harnesses solar power to irrigate desert crops

A new photovoltaic plant came online this month in the Elqui Valley as Chile’s arid north continues its rapid expansion in solar power. 

With 5,200 solar panels and a generating capacity of 1.2 megawatts, one of Chile’s biggest photovoltaic plants came online this month in Coquimbo Region’s Elqui Valley.
A collaboration between German developer Juwi and local engineering group Kaltemp, the energy generated by the plant will be used to irrigate over 1235 acres (500 ha) of clementines and avocados crops, grown for exportation.
Juwi has been heavily involved in developing the solar energy potential of Chile’s arid north, seen by many as being on the verge of a major boom.
Chile has enormous potential for the use of solar energy,” says Diego Lobo-Guerrero Rodríguez, Juwi’s project coordinator for Latin America. “Furthermore, Chile is politically stable and very open to renewables.”
The German company ran two research projects in Chile’s Atacama Desert before installing two solar power plants in 2011, one in the city of Antofagasta and the other in San Pedro de Atacama.
Both plants use polycrystalline and thin-film modules and were constructed in cooperation with the Universidad de Antofagasta’s Centre for the Development of Energy.
Its latest plant is located on the outskirts of Vicuña, the home of Nobel Prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral and several major astronomical observatories that capitalize on the valley’s famed starry skies.
Over the last semester of 2012 the plant will generate the equivalent amount of energy that 1,200 homes consume in a month, and will reduce 800 tons of CO2 every semester.
According Kaltemp Chief Executive Gustavo Boetsch, the plant, which covers an area of 6 acres (2.5 ha) and represents an investment of US$3 million, has the potential to raise its generating capacity to 2.9 MW.
Northern Chile has some of the highest solar radiation levels in the world, a factor that has led other international solar energy companies to also install plants in the Andean nation.
Statistics from Chile’s Energy Ministry indicate that solar radiation in the Elqui Valley is 1,807 kWh per square meter every year, an intensity which permits photovoltaic plants to operate at 100 percent efficiency throughout the year.

This post is also available in Spanish