Chile and other countries in Latin America pressing ahead with renewable energy sources

Chile, along with other Latin American countries, is pressing ahead with ambitious plans to shift its electricity supply away from fossil fuels toward greater use of renewable energy sources.

So concludes a new report from Infiniti Research that suggests, for example, that Latin America is expected to install over 47 gigawatts of new capacity in wind energy over the next 10 years.

renewable energy sources - SolarReserve - thermal solar plantThe Tamarugal thermal solar plant in northern Chile is anticipated to be one of the world’s largest solar projects with energy storage. Image: SolarReserve

Until recently, Brazil was the dominant player in Latin America’s wind power market, but political and economic instability will likely weaken its efforts to install new capacity in 2019, the report predicts.

Consequently, Brazil’s lead in the market is likely to be overtaken by Chile, Argentina, and Mexico – all three of which have declared ambitious targets to raise use of renewable energy sources.

Mexico and Argentina

Mexico’s renewable energy market is shaped by climate change legislation published in 2012 that declared that the Central American country was raising the proportion of electricity generated from renewable energy sources – including nuclear power – to 35 percent by 2024 and 50 percent by 2050.

Also, in 2014, Mexico passed a package of new laws to reform the energy market and open it up to private investment. Although it is aimed primarily at oil and gas, the move is also expected to open up foreign interest in Mexico’s renewables market.

For example, the United States Department of Commerce suggest that the “renewable energy subsectors [in Mexico] with the most potential for U.S. exporters are wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal.”

Argentina has declared a target of 20 percent of energy consumption to come from renewable energy sources by 2025. The World Bank recently pledged a US$ 480 million guarantee to promote private investment in Argentina’s renewable energy sector.

“The development of renewable energy sources in Argentina is crucial for diversifying the power grid and contributing to climate change mitigation,” say the World Bank.

Chile aiming for 70 percent from renewable energy sources by 2050

Chile has declared the intention that 70 percent of its energy supply by 2050 will come from renewable sources.

The South American country, which shares a long border with Argentina along the Andes, is expecting to meet its 2025 target of 20 percent of electricity to come from renewables ahead of schedule.

Chile has been held up as a role model for smooth transition to green energy.

A major trigger in Chile’s energy sector transformation was the gas supply crisis of 2007 when Argentina cut supplies to Chile in order to ensure it could meet its own domestic demand following a very cold winter.

This forced Chile to re-examine its energy strategy, and the country introduced new legislation in 2008 to promote renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass.

Other factors also appear to be helping Chile reform its energy sector: climate change has caused some severe droughts in recent years, and there are social and environmental concerns about huge, centralized energy projects.

However, there are some emerging barriers that may threated Chile’s progress if not tackled promptly, not least the serious congestion in the nation’s energy grid.

Another problem with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar that can cause grid complications is ensuring that the plant can supply electricity when needed, and not just when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

Massive solar plant with energy storage gets go-ahead from Chilean government

In a bid to overcome the problem of intermittent supply, the Chilean government recently gave environmental approval to the American company SolarReserve to build a massive thermal solar plant that will provide energy 24 hours a day, every day.

The solar plant – to be situated in Tamarugal, a province in the Tarapacá region in the north of Chile – is expected to be one of the world’s largest solar projects with energy storage.

The plant will have three 150 megawatt solar thermal towers that heat up from sunlight that is reflected from mirrors placed around them.

The heat from the towers is then transferred to molten salt that is kept at 566 degrees Celsius (1,050 degrees Fahrenheit).

When there is a demand for energy, the heat from the salt is transferred to water to make super-heated steam that is then used to drive a steam turbine to generate electricity.

This means that the continuity of supply can be secured without having to use fossil fuel generators to fill in the gaps.

Allows solar to compete on functionality and cost

Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, says:

“What’s happening in Chile is a preview of the future of solar around the world.”

He explains that not only does the thermal solar plant design allow them to compete head to head with conventional energy producers on functionality, but also on cost.

In the most recent energy supply auction in Chile, “SolarReserve set a new benchmark for baseload solar pricing by bidding 63 dollars per megawatt hour, without subsidies,” notes Smith.

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