Chile must develop green alternatives
The crisis in natural gas supplies in neighbouring Argentina and high international oil prices make it essential for
Chile to develop renewable energy sources that are less damaging to the environment, ecologists, lawmakers and
cabinet ministers say.
"When talking energy, we must not simply use the first thing we come across, we must change our outlook from 'hunter-gatherer' to 'farmer'. We have to sow energy in order to reap it," Roberto Romn, a mechanical engineer at the University of Chile and advisor to the Sustainable Chile Programme, told.
This environmental organisation, headed by Sara Larrain, is behind a bill to promote renewable energy in Chile.
"I am sure that if oil becomes impossibly expensive, a whole heap of other forms of energy, many of them renewable, will start to gain momentum," said Economy Minister Jorge Rodriguez.
Renewable energy was discussed at a Jul. 22 meeting attended by Rodriguez and legislators from the parliamentary commissions on Energy and Natural Resources. The local "Aqui la gente" (The People Are Here) citizen movement, led by Ernesto Medina, helped organise the panel.
Oil prices have been unstable since the United States and Britain invaded Iraq in March 2003, and Chile depends on
imports to meet 95 % of its fuel needs. These factors, coupled with the volatile situation of natural gas in
Argentina, make the search for alternative energy sources a pressing issue, said the participants.
The Sustainable Chile Programme advocates the promotion of renewable, non-conventional energy sources, such as wind, geo-thermal, solar, wave power, biomass and small-scale hydropower stations. The idea is to offer tax incentives and to create a fund to promote the generation and use of some of these sources.
Manuel Baquedano, director of the Institute of Political Ecology (IEP), said small hydroelectric dams are the most
feasible alternative in the short to medium term. The strategy would involve "obtaining small amounts of energy, but
from several places. Thus, the environment is not affected and dependency on large hydropower dams is not generated,"
Public awareness is crucial to the success of green-friendly energy sources, said the environmentalist, who added that the IEP will be holding a "green electricity" seminar on Sep. 7 and 8 to help inform the public on methods of generating cleaner energy.
Chilean geography offers huge potential "fertile areas" for alternative energy sources. The north, for example, has
abundant hours of sunlight as well as great geothermal potential. Solar power is one of the cleanest energies, and in
the north the sun beats down with particular intensity. The main disadvantage is its relatively high cost. On the
other hand, geothermal energy, which makes use of underground thermal energy, is less costly, said Baquedano.
With its 5,000 km Pacific coastline, Chile is also in an excellent position to exploit wave power -- a little-known alternative technology where the movement of the water powers turbines.
"The fjords and channels of the south, which in Puerto Montt (1,000 km south of Santiago) have tidal variations of eight metres, have enormous untapped potential," Senator Antonio Horvath, chair of the Senate Commission on Natural Resources and the Environment, commented.
Biomass energy was also stressed at the meeting. This is based on the extraction of gas from decomposing organic
matter, a type of power useful for small-scale domestic consumption but more difficult to apply on a large scale due
to its small volume.
"What is missing is the policy, how to take advantage of the studies. The problem is we are not advancing as we should," said the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Pablo Lorenzini.
The cost issue is still the main hurdle to innovation in Chile's energy network, which is largely dependent on
natural gas and big hydroelectric dams, both of which are criticised for their negative impact on the
President Ricardo Lagos will be inaugurating the controversial Ralco hydropower station on the Bio-Bio River later this year. He will also implement a plan to replace natural gas imports from Argentina with supplies brought in from other countries by tanker ships. In the president's view, only geothermal energy could provide a cost-effective alternative source for Chile.