Saturday, May 14, 2011

HydroAysén's Dam(n) Project Approved

Several decades ago, there was a pharaonic proposal to divert fresh water from Alaska, British Columbia and Alberta south into the arid Great Basin, California and Mexico. Called the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), this project would have turned the wild and scenic front range rivers of the Rocky Mountains into a series of hydroelectric reservoirs and pretty much ended the salmon fisheries along them. According to the late Luna Leopold, a Berkeley geology professor quoted in Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, “The environmental damage that would be caused by the damned thing can’t even be described. It could cause as much harm as all of the dam-building we have done in a hundred years.”

NAWAPA, fortunately, never came to fruition because, for some inexplicable reason, Canadians wouldn’t go along with the wholesale diversion of their water resources south of the border. NAWAPA’s South American counterpart, though, took a big step closer to completion last Monday when a 12-member government commission approved a series of five hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers (pictured above), in Chile’s remote northern Patagonian region of Aysén.

While the proposed HydroAysén dams would not ship water north to central Chile (which does suffer regular droughts), they would require more than 1,600 km (roughly 1,000 miles) of transmission lines through a densely forested region with only a single two-lane highway, most of which is unpaved. Those transmission lines would pass through several national parks and other environmentally sensitive protected areas, plus probable additional roads, and would result in major deforestation. On top of that, it still might require hundreds of kilometers of underwater transmission lines to intersect with Chile’s main power grid at the city of Puerto Montt.

Chile, admittedly, lacks most conventional energy alternatives other than hydroelectricity - it has virtually no fossil fuels and must import nearly all its oil, coal and natural gas from Argentina or by ocean-going tanker. Disruptions of the Argentine gas supplies, in particular, are notoriously frequent because of domestic political considerations on the other side of the Andes. Chileans are overwhelmingly opposed to nuclear energy in a country that’s no less seismically vulnerable than Japan - memories of last year’s 8.8 event are still vivid.

Chile does, though, have a potentially limitless supply of alternative energy in the northern Atacama desert region - solar power in a region that rarely receives any rain, and hardly even has any cloud cover. Whether that could be developed quickly enough to support the massive copper mining industry at sites like Chuquicamata is questionable, but Chile could do much more to promote energy efficiency - in the capital of Santiago and other cities, for instance, modern low-energy fluorescent light bulbs and insulation could do a great deal to reduce power consumption, at a far lower cost than shipping electricity nearly 3,000 km (about 1,800 miles to the north).

Opponents of HydroAysén, under the name of Patagonia sin Represas (Patagonia without Dams) are likely to appeal the commission’s decision and, in any event, the construction of transmission lines will undergo a separate environmental review in December. Still, spectacular riverscapes like the Baker-Nef confluence (pictured at top) remain in serious danger. The difference with NAWAPA is that, in a single country with a unitary political system, there are no Canadians who can veto the abuse of Patagonia's natural heritage.

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Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, there are so many complications to the power issue that advocates for any other solution cannot seem to provide a holistic answer that satisfies needs. Energy efficiency cannot overcome the insatiable need for power -- and without building more capacity, we will have rolling blackouts like California. Renewables in the north are not the answer, because solar, etc. cannot provide a stable base load throughout the day. Anyway, they too would have to have 1000s miles of transmission lines too. Hydro is one of the cheapest and greenest ways to do it. Given that it's an aesthetic issue (if you boil it down), what can a government do?

Wayne Bernhardson said...

Thanks for your comments, which I believe are well-meant, but I can't agree with everything you've said. Dam-building is not simply an aesthetic issue - it also involves deforestation and siltation (which reduces the dam's hydroelectric potential, often very quickly). The transmission lines also involves substantial deforestation and erosion. The solar capacity of the north is almost infinite, given the reliable sunshine and area available for erecting solar panels. And, for what it's worth, I live in California and have never been subject to a rolling blackout; though our monthly PG&E does identify our location as a "rotating outage block," it has never happened.

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