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19 December 2019

Atacama Desert lets Chile leverage solar benefits

By Andries Wantenaar

The 607 MW Horizonte Wind Farm planned for Chile’s Atacama Desert will be South America’s largest, requiring a $971 million investment. Construction works will begin in 2022 and finish in 2024. Enercon will supply 132 turbines with 4.6 MW each, for the project, and the developer is Colbun, Chile’s third largest energy utility.

Enercon will modify the steel towers to meet Chilean Seismic Code regulations for the area, which sits atop a tectonic plate boundary. During site analysis, the desert wind was found to have low ambient turbulence and a wind speed that barely increases or can even fall at higher heights. In view of these factors Enercon determined an ideal hub height of 90 to 110 metres and has selected the E-160 EP5 turbine model, whose large diameter of 160m is suitable for low wind conditions.

The 80 square kilometre site in Taltal district, Antofagasta region was leased to Colbun in September 2017, and will be transferred to the company for 30 years from 2024. Most solar projects in Chile are built on public land, but this is true of only about 15% of wind projects.

Colbun’s first project in 1985 was a 474 MW hydroelectric plant. Since then the company has developed or acquired over a gigawatt of hydroelectric power, over 1.5 GW of natural gas generation, and a 350 MW coal plant. Its involvement in renewables is recent, with a few hundred megawatts of solar in the past 5 years, some still ongoing, and its only wind involvement prior to the mammoth Horizonte project was a 45 MW wind farm inaugurated in 2015.

The output of the Horizonte project will mostly be consumed by the mining industry. Mining makes up about 60% of Chile’s exports, 10% of its economy, and Chilean copper production is a third of the world total. In recent years a lot of investment has come into new mines, despite suffering from double the electricity price compared to neighbouring Peru and having a reliance on fossil fuel generators. In 2014 the industry used 39% of the country’s electricity, and its demand for energy was predicted to double over 10 years. The country’s mines are generally in the northern Atacama region, which has the world’s highest solar irradiation, whereas Chile’s abundant hydropower is in the south.

Prior to their unification in late 2017, Chile had two separate electricity grids, the SING in the north and the SIC in the south. There is still inefficiency in transmitting energy across long distances, but solar and wind plants are now being built in the favorable conditions of the Atacama with both mining demand and the option to send power south in mind. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), Chile’s overall renewable generation rose from 8.3 GW in 2014 to 10.9 GW in 2018. Of that increase 788 MW was wind power rising from 736 MW to 1524 MW, and 1916 MW was solar power rising from 221 MW to 2137 MW. Hydropower, a traditionally major portion of Chile’s generation mix, rose 282 MW from 6445 MW to 6727 MW.