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CHILE
Energy’s winds of change
Gabriel Canihuante
3/20/2009
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Coquimbo region debates wind and thermoelectric energy amid environmental concerns.

On Chile´s northern coast, the Coquimbo region, with a population of close to 600,000, is facing a dilemma over how best to generate energy in this energy-scarce country.

The region could become Chile´s top producer of wind power, but regional authorities continue to eye more cheaper, coal-powered thermoelectric plants, which may put the area´s rich marine ecosystems in jeopardy, but at half of wind power´s price tag.

According to the Environmental Impact Evaluation System, a government body, there are 11 wind power projects underway in Coquimbo with a production capacity of 1,100 megawatts. The agency has already given environmental authorization to six of these projects, while the rest are still under evaluation.

With investment of close to US$2.3 billion, these projects could allow Coquimbo to satisfy regional energy demands with clean power, said Coquimbo´s regional secretary for the Mines and Energy Ministry, Antonio Videka in an interview with Latinamerica Press.

Only one of these wind parks is currently operating. Canela, with its 11 turbines, produces 18.15 megawatts, but supporters of these projects are awaiting others, saying they could help Chile diversify its energy sources that are based almost entirely on hydroelectric plants as well as thermoelectric plants that are fed by coal, diesel fuel and scarce gas, which is imported from neighboring Argentina. In as little as four years, 570 turbines, mostly in rural coastal areas, will be operating in this region.

Fighting thermoelectric plants
Nevertheless, the possibility of living off of alternative energy in Chile has a long way to go. Regional authorities are evaluating two new thermoelectric plants north of La Sirena.

The plants would require investment of $1.1 billion to produce 540 megawatts, while the 11 wind parks would cost $2.2 billion.

These new plants have created a massive movement by Coquimbo residents and other environmental and social activists.

One plant, which would run in diesel fuel, has already been approved. Organizers of another plant withdrew the plan from evaluation because they feared it would be rejected. Two others are still awaiting a response.

“We oppose the thermoelectric plants for environmental reasons, because they would produce energy for big copper mining and they´re in an area which doesn’t produce [copper],” said Rosa Rojas, president of the La Higuera Environmental Defense Movement.

“Here we have the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve,” she said, referring to the protected area. Rojas said the reserve along with the Isla de Choros Marine Reserve are home to 80 percent of the world’s Humboldt penguins.

This ecosystem is an important breeding and nesting ground for local marine fauna. In addition to the Humboldt penguins, which are an endangered species, there are a number of other bird species, bottle-nosed dolphins, sea lions and others.

Thermoelectric operators have said in their environmental impact studies, which were presented to the Regional Environment Commission, a state agency that the plants will absorb large quantities of water to cool the turbines, which will later be returned to the surrounding environment with a temperature 6 to 10 degrees centigrade, higher than when it was first taken. Scientists say this water temperature change could have a serious toll on the area marine life.

“You have to consider the air contamination,” said Rojas, who is also a teacher and tour operator. “The residents in the Los Choros village and the Punta de Choros fishing settlement are scattered around, but they are within the radius of the air contamination that the plants would cause. Fishermen, farmers, goat herders, and those who live off of tourism would be affected.”

Rojas and the environmental movement she heads demanded the government execute a general study on the plants´ potential impact on the region. A study in late 2008 by Catholic University of the North, based in Coquimbo, generated a heated debate among academics.

The 400-page report said the plants’ release of warmer water will not harm the marine plant and animal life. But two scientists at the university who participated in the study — Wolfgang Stotz and Armando Mujica — complained their research was not taken into account and asked that their names be removed from the report.

“They made general conclusions with which I do not agree,” said Mujica, who said his findings were not included in the study.

Geologist Jorge Oyarzún, a researcher and professor at La Serena University said in a letter to local weekly Tiempo that the thermoelectric plants would leave ash in the area, which causes high air contamination because it has “concentrations of chemical elements such as beryllium, boron, nickel, germanium, arsenic, lead and vanadium.”

Living in smoke
Jan van Dijk, a small-scale seafood fisherman, has lived in La Higuera with his wife since he moved here from the Netherlands in 1993.

“Holland is an extremely industrial country, with a lot of contamination,” he said in an interview. “I walked around Holland´s forests which are dying from acid rain. I had the luck of seeing the lakes of Scandinavia, in Sweden and Norway, lakes that are dead because of acid rain. I know what it´s like to live in the smoke and that led me to leave my country and find a clean place, without contamination, tranquil and pretty. I found that in Los Choros.”

“La Higuera is the worst place for the thermoelectric plants,” said van Dijk, who is also a member of the environmental movement.

Van Dijk and Rojas agreed that they will go the courts if the projects are approved. Videka said that the communities´ opinion must be taken into account when they approve or reject the projects.

“We´re not being frightened away investment, but we´re not writing a blank check to private investment,” he said.

Chile “lacks legislation to determine what areas can be sacrificed. Not all of our land is the same,” he added.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Thermoelectric plants pose risk, environmental activists warn. (Photo: Gabriel Canihuante)
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