Torres del Paine National Park

Chile could generate 60 times its electricity consumption and 20 percent of the world's needs

"With all the solar energy potential that Chile has, it could provide 60 times the country's consumption and 20 percent of the world's demand." 

September, 2019.

 The leader of the Mitigation and Energy work-group formed for COP25 and Director of the SERC Solar Energy Research Center, Rodrigo Palma, explains the potential of the Atacama Desert to generate electricity and other productive innovations thanks to the radiance received from the Sun.

Atacama Desert, solar energy panels.
  The great threat posed by climate change to the habitability of the planet has strongly encouraged the massification of alternative energy sources to fossil fuels - generators of the polluting gases that cause global warming - that are clean and renewable. For years, Chilean researchers have teamed up to develop innovations around solar energy and take advantage of the potential that the unique radiation levels that the Atacama Desert receives.

In the context of the realization in Chile of the UN Summit for Climate Change, COP25, the leader of the Mitigation and Energy panel formed by the government for the ocassion, the Civil Electrical Engineer and Ph. D. Rodrigo Palma, who is also the Director of the Solar Energy Research Center (SERC), explains Chile's potential to be a solar energy generator and exporter and the work that researchers are doing to develop this potential.

"In several universities along the country has been generated the conviction that in order to have some option of getting into the world car of solar energy and being protagonists, we have to work together," explains Palma. 

How does this work materialize?

We are in several solar adventures. One is the Chile SERC Center, a Fondap Conicyt program that brings together seven universities and an international center with the objective of forming a critical mass in Chile that makes the country a relevant player worldwide.

In addition, we are working on other projects to generate innovations for all possible uses of the Sun: the use of spectrum, heat and electricity generation. An example, in Arica we were able to propose solar solutions and human capital formation. They are productive solutions at community level for livestock farming, agriculture, aquaculture and tourism. It makes perfect sense to use solar energy to process and dehydrate food or for communities to process camelid fiber with energy from the sun.

Regarding electricity generation, what initiative are you promoting? 

Solar energy photovoltaic modules in Northern Chile.

Another initiative is Atamostec, Corfo's technological program promoted by universities and private companies seeking to develop specialized photovoltaic modules for the Atacama desert. Those are panels that contain cells, glass, encapsulation and frame that can perform well for extreme desert conditions such as high temperature and ultraviolet radiation as well as low temperature at night. The first records of large-scale solar energy use date back to the end of the 19th century, with the oldest water desalination plants in the world, installed in the Atacama Desert for silver and saltpeter mining.

If the first solar initiative in Chile was 100 years ago, why hasn't it developed until now? 

It has had ups and downs. Fossil fuels have a lot of energy concentrated in a small space, that was its wonder and generated industrial development, delaying the massification of renewable energy. But today there are two phenomena: technological advances which allow many renewable energies and their massification to be competitive. And this adds to climate change. It is no longer about making a more or less efficient technology, but about the planet's inability to withstand higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere that could mortgage our viability as a human species.

Solar potential

Because of this potential, Chile will host the Solar World Congress 2019 in November, one of the most important solar energy meetings in the world which has been held since 1960. Experts from 60 countries will come to discuss solar technologies as a source of heating and refrigeration, energy storage, markets and policies to facilitate expansion, among others.

You have developed a proposal to generate a network to provide electricity to Chile and export its delta. What is it about?

The potential for generating electricity from solar energy in Chile gives spectacular numbers, which could make the country a great generator and exporter of solar energy for South America and the world. One way is through electrical networks that interconnect the region. We are evaluating the process because it is very complex, it is not only a technical issue, it also has components either geopolitical as well as related to safety, health, industrial, business pressures, etc. But some spaces appear with Bolivia or Paraguay, through Argentina.

How much electricity can be produced taking advantage of the full potential of Chile in generation? 

With all the solar energy potential of Chile, the country could generate about 60 times all national consumption and about 20% of the world's needs.

How many square kilometers of the desert would be used for this?

Solar energy in Chile.
To supply all the energy that Chile requires and if we had enough storage we need a thousand square kilometers, somewhat less than 1% of the desert and roughly equivalent to the surface of the commune of Melipilla. And to supply 30% of the electricity consumption in all of South America we need only 5% of the desert. Now, to exploit the full potential, 60% of this territory should be occupied, but 20% of the world's consumption could be supplied.

What are the impacts of solar energy on the environment and what are the forms of mitigation?

Every human action has an impact. Then it comes to analyzing what has less impact and which are more consistent with the development model we want in the country and with the model of development of each region. In general, photovoltaic technologies are highly recyclable like glass and have a long lifespan, between 25 and 30 years on average. If it is possible to install industries in Chile that manufacture cells and panels, one could take that material and reuse it for the same purpose or reuse its different components in other applications. It is not something essentially complex compared, for example, with a nuclear waste.

Are there other alternatives to export? 

There is more than one way. It is not necessary to use cables. Solar energy can be converted to hydrogen or synthetic solar fuels. The most famous is hydrogen. This can be directly stored or transformed into other materials and transferred to ships, just as oil is exported. And another option is to attract foreign industry to the coasts of Chile to produce its products. The North can offer in its coasts and ports good infrastructure and cheap, clean solar energy.

Do you think a State vision is required to coordinate these changes?

Always. A state vision is key, which manages to realize these phenomena and more than transform itself into a centralized planner, generate the conditions for market agents to act efficiently.