Monday, December 17, 2007
Chile's Dam(ned) Energy Dilemma
For most of the last two decades, Chile has enjoyed South America's most vigorous economy, not to mention political stability, while countries such as neighboring Argentina (and more distant Venezuela) suffered economic and political meltdowns. There's a threat to Chile's prosperity, though, as world oil prices rise. The country imports almost all of its petroleum, but for a small quantity produced in southernmost Patagonia.
The capital of Santiago, meanwhile, has long suffered from air pollution because of its growing industry, burgeoning car culture, and a location that traps hydrocarbon emissions in the same way as California's Los Angeles basin. It needs energy, though, as does the booming copper-mining industry, based in the northern Atacama desert. Meanwhile, the southerly lakes district is so devoid of energy resources that even mid-sized cities such as Temuco (population about 250,000) and Valdivia rely on firewood for home heating (even some surprisingly large hotels produce their room heat and hot water in this manner). The result is that Temuco has some of Chile's worst air quality indexes.
Chile has been looking for energy alternatives, ranging from nuclear to more alternative technologies such as wind (ideal for much of Patagonia), solar (unlimited potential in the desert north), and steam (Chile's volcanic landscape has huge numbers of hot springs). The conventional solution, though, appears to be hydroelectricity, but that comes with its own problems--a few years back, in a controversial case, the Spanish power company ENDESA dammed the Río Biobío, widely considered one of the world's great recreational rivers.
The problem is that Chile's last remaining wild rivers, particularly the Río Baker, lie in the southern Aisén region, the northern sector of Chilean Patagonia, near the town of Cochrane. ENDESA plans to dam the Baker, flooding more than 5,000 hectares of the stunningly scenic Baker-Nef confluence. In the process, though, it would also have to build up to 2,300 km of transmission lines through nearly pristine temperate rainforest that includes several national parks and other reserves, including the private conservation initiative at Parque Pumalín.
The Baker project would provide clean energy for Santiago and the north, but at great cost. Much of the power would be lost in transmission. Much of the southern forests would be denuded. And, because dams collect sediment, the project might not be sustainable in the long run.
There is a vocal political opposition to damming the Baker, and Chilean highways have sprouted billboards urging a "Patagonia sin Represas" (Patagonia without Dams, website in Spanish only). At the same time, there are signs that it's a done deal--Cochrane's Hotel Wellmann, for example, is undergoing a major expansion to accommodate construction personnel even as a cubbyhole office on the town's central plaza continues to struggle against the project.
Chile has much to do in energy conservation--double-paned windows are becoming common in newer buildings, for instance, but a project to retrofit existing houses and insulate them might reduce the need for imported natural gas and diesel. For the moment, though, the country appears to be concentrating on the supply side of the energy problem, and mostly ignoring a potentially rewarding demand side.