Victory for environmentalists as Hidroaysén dams are rejected in Chile

After 8 years of protests against plans to build 5 large hydro-electric power plants along the Baker and Pascua rivers in the Aysén Region in Chile, the $8 billion Hidroaysén project was reject by the government last week who cited various unresolved environmental issues for their decision. Originally sold as a solution to the energy crisis which is threatening Chile, it has been argued that the application process has been fronted by a large scale campaign of misinformation which has failed to convince the general public of its benefits. The expensive and environmentally damaging plans would have seen wide-spread negative socio-economic repercussions for the region, while also flooding 5,900 hectares of land in order to generate hydroelectric power. However, it is still unclear on how future energy issues of the country could be possibly addressed, with Chile, activists and the energy companies behind Hidroaysén still facing huge challenges.

Striving for Energy Independence

origin_5749326884As a growing economy, one of the main economical objectives for Chile over the coming years will be to develop new sources of energy being generated at a domestic level. With no oil or natural gas, Chile is currently reliant on imported energy source from its neighbours, with almost 75% of energy supplies coming from fossil fuels. The National Energy Strategy 2012-2030 was devised by the government in order to address the energy situation, with a huge importance being placed on hydroelectric power. Despite this, the joint venture between European energy provider Endesa and Chile’s Colbun, who have already collectively invested $320 million into Hidroaysén, received a catastrophic blow when the originally accepted application for the project was reversed. CEO of Hidroaysén, Daniel Fernandez, claims that the power plants are unavoidable if Chile wants to meet its growing energy need, and that opposition don’t share the vision of development that Chile has adopted for its energy sources.

Addressing the decision to reject Hidroaysén, Chile’s Environmental Minister Maximo Pacheco believes that the project had many poorly thought out aspects within its application and had been poorly executed. However, Pacheco does believe that there are possibilities of different Hydro electricity projects going ahead in the Patagonia region, with Hidroaysén holding the water rights to more rivers in the area. There is also the opportunity to appeal the decision of the committee in the Environmental Court and the nation’s Supreme Court within 30 days.

Where is all the energy going?!

With an installed capacity of 2750 MW, the 5 power plants would have consisted of 1180 mile-long high-voltage transmission lines to carry electricity from south Chile to the main grid around Santiago. Travelling through national parks, indigenous territories, thousands of private properties, underwater and around active volcanoes, the power generated would mostly be used for the energy intensive coal mining industry in northern Chile rather than for domestic household or public infrastructure use. Daniel Fernandez says that the new electricity demand is the result of increased demand from home-use which is an opinion fiercely opposed by environmentalists who believe without mining there would be no energy crisis in Chile in the first place.

Patagonia Sin Represas

Originally starting as a grassroots effort to preserve the wild and unique locations of the 2 rivers, as well as to help support the local communities and wildlife situated within the region which would be affected, the campaign against Hidroaysén has turned into an internationally supported environmental movement. Uniting under the Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams) slogan, various opponents have been denouncing the viability of the project and countless environmental impacts. With fierce protests in Santiago and Patagonia, the group questioned what kind of country do Chileans want to build, and had forced the project to be delayed by several years. Through continued pressure, 35 legal appeals to the Committee of Ministers (consisting of the Minister of Environment, Health, Economy, Energy and Mining, Agriculture, and Tourism) by the Patagonia Defense Council final led to an unanimous decisions that plans for the project were insufficient.

Renewable sources

origin_304426234The decision by the Chilean government to overturn permission for the Hidroaysén  project is a bold step to take which indicates a possible milestone in the planning and regulation process of the energy sector in the country. While the energy debate within the government has previously been either “coal or dams”, there are indications of more ambition and scope to tap into potential sources of renewable energy, with many questions being asked about what kind of energy future Chile wants to have.

At present, only 5% of energy comes from renewable sources despite having an abundance of energy potentials including the wind coming along the Pacific coast, sun in its northern deserts all year round, biomass potential from its large agricultural industry, various geothermal sites, and the many dams on its rivers. Furthermore, while many countries are encouraging rooftop solar panels schemes to generate electricity, Chile’s grids aren’t even linked up. However, the Center for Renewable Energy’s most recent report shows that projects providing 11,000 MW of renewable energy have currently been approved in Chile, while other proposed renewable energy projects which could generate up to 5,000 MV are also in the application process. The combination of these renewable energy initiatives would equal the same amount of energy as six Hidroaysen’s, and while it’s unlikely all these renewable energy projects will come to fruition it is an indication of how Hidroaysén is an unnecessary initiative in Chile and that focus should move away from large and damagimg Hydro-schemes.

Despite this victory for the environmentalists and local communities, it’s unclear on how Chile will now attempt to address the issue of energy resources. Furthermore, with electricity rates putting a strain on the economy, business leaders are suggesting that energy constraints may restrict Chile’s period of growth. However, this significant step taken by the government provides a positive position to start developing a sustainable electricity grid and an improved level of energy efficiency which allows Chile to move closer towards energy independence.