Foreign investment in solar power for Chilean mining industry

Chilean, Spanish and North American companies have begun investigating and constructing solar power plants in the northern regions.

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The Atacama Desert’s clear skies – some of the clearest on earth – allow ample sun to shine down on the region that is also at the main region of Chile’s mining industry, the beating heart of the Chile’s booming national economy.

Now companies around the world are planning to harness the power of the Atacama sun to provide power to the major mines of northern Chile at competitive prices.

Responsible for more than 80 percent of energy consumption in the north of Chile, the large mines of the region produce over a third of the world’s copper as well as tin, silver, iron ore, zinc and gold amongst other metals and minerals. The Atacama’s mines require anywhere from 10 to 400 megawatts to run. For a sense of scale, that is equivalent to the power of 166,000 to well over 6 million lightbulbs.

According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, more and more companies from around the world and within Chile are investing in providing solar power. Chilean firm Atacama Solar has applied to spend $773 million on a solar plant that would produce 250 megawatts of power. Solar power companies from the United States and Spain also have projects underway in the region, while Swiss mining company Xstrata, the report says, has begun investigating the possibility of powering its mines with solar power as well.

Spanish company Solarpack Corp. Tecnologia has estimated that it will be able to sell its solar energy for roughly the same price as fossil fuel energies currently available in the region.

The Atacama’s crystal clear skies have long made it a top location for some of the world’s most advanced astronomical equipment, but the recent interest in solar power for mines marks an important change for an industry that drives the economy of both the region and also of the country as a whole.

The interest of foreign investors in the burgeoning solar power industry is part of a more general rising trend in foreign investment within Chile. The 2011 Emerging Markets Logistics Index recently as the 10th most promising emerging market for foreign investors, placing it in league with India, China, Russia and Indonesia. A January report from Aon Corporation that assessed the political risk involved in foreign investment gave Chile the lowest possible risk ranking, the same ranking given to the United States, Japan, and most of Western Europe.