Energía 2050: Time to advocate and plan

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By Camilo Rada
 
Hidroaysén, Isla Riesco, Alto Maipo, Puelo...many of us have raised our voices against some of these projects. And that is good, but we shouldn’t just be “putting out fires,” these projects should have been part of an energy planning process at the national level, with citizen participation and an eye toward the future.
 
The recently completed participatory process “Energía 2050,” aimed to define an energy policy that will guide the future decisions and laws on these issues. It is critical for Chilean society to take advantage of such citizen consultations, to share our points of view and collaborate in the construction of the country we dream of.
 
Unfortunately, this participatory process stands out for its low participation, just 125 people registered an opinion. This is a mea culpa for all of Chilean society: which is more prone to march in the streets than to get informed, read, and deliver a well-researched opinion in the right moment.
 
A myopic future view
To be fair, we must recognize that this is a proposal with many positive attributes, principally its recognition of the necessity for a long-term energy plan, integration of the different organizations associated with the territorial planning, recognition of the role of the citizens, focus on sustainability and care for nature, and the way that it establishes the importance of moving toward a renewable energy system and the importance of non-conventional sources.
 
However, as a vision of the future it seems to me that it is significantly myopic, and although it gestures toward the goal that we all wish to reach, it does not consider the necessary criteria to achieve it, making it more of an unreachable, unrealistic utopia. 
 
Let me explain: Energía 2050 presents an idyllic version of the future. We produce renewable energy with low production of greenhouse gases, high penetration of non-traditional sources (principally solar and wind), and in a way that is responsive to the environment and communities. But at the same time, it proposes a concrete goal that by 2050 Chile should be among the three countries with the cheapest electricity in the OECD. In this, we are competing with 34 countries1. Among them: The United States, the largest oil producer in the world2; Iceland, which produces 29% of its energy geothermally,3 and currently for less than a third of what it costs in Chile4; Germany, a leader in green technology; and it continues. Currently, we have approximately 13 or 14 countries ahead of us on the OECD price list.
 
The way I see it, Energía 2050 leaves the door open to continue –as always- putting off sustainability and social well-being in favor of competition, without generating any real change in the way things work today.
 
Without Germany’s technology, Iceland’s geothermal resources or France’s nuclear plants, it seems to me that Chile’s only option to get on the cheap energy podium would be to sacrifice the social and environmental aspects that are perfectly described and justified in the new proposal, but would end up being nothing more than good intentions.
 
Energía 2050 lacks a clear definition of objectives and priorities that would help avoid future dilemmas that generate competition among its different “pillars.” And as they themselves emphasize, the public has a deep and authentic concern for environmental and social issues, but this is not properly reflected in the proposal.
 
I say that Energía 2050 suffers from myopia; it lacks a serious analysis of “carrying capacity.” That is, how much energy can we responsibly produce? It mentions Chile's immense energy potential, and assumes that due to this potential we could satisfy any future energy demands. Put this way, it could be argued that we are far from a time when there are no more rivers to pipe, valleys to dam, or coal to mine without incurring unacceptable social and environmental costs. It may be that right now that time seems far off, but when projects with the tenor of Hidroaysen, Puelo, Alto Maipo or the coal mines in Isla Riesco appear so often, I tend to think that we are not so far from reaching Chile’s maximum capacity to produce cheap electricity.
 
As proposed, Energía 2050 signals that Chile wants to be a paradise for foreign investment and cheap energy, which obviously leads to increased demand and will exacerbate the problem.
 
Chile is comprised of only 756,103 square kilometers, that's it. The evident and irrefutable reality that infinite growth in a finite space is impossible must be embraced.
 
Instead of shouting from the rooftops that energy in 2050 will cost next to nothing, it seems more reasonable to me to broadcast that it will be sustainable and socially responsible, but limited. If you want to have a heated pool in 2050, you’d better learn how to install solar panels on your roof, because the energy we can produce responsibly won’t cover it. If you want to open a mine, great, Chile offers rich ores, benefits, and stability, but energy “will costs what it has to cost.”
 
I’m not saying that these changes have to happen now, but by 2050 my 6-year-old nephew’s generation will be in their 40s and taking the reins of the country. I’d like it if when that generation goes to college and studies the laws, they see that Chile aspires to be more than a paradise for foreign investment, because responsibility to the people and the land comes first.
 
Not long ago a friend told me he had gotten a 1902 first edition of the book “Aconcagua and Tierra del Fuego” by Sir Martin Conway, for less than 10 bucks. A great buy! A jewel for nothing, he told me: “The person who sold it to me didn’t understand the value of the book…” but he was sure happy to sell this old, grimy edition.
 
While studying, I have lived for four years now in Canada, and when I see how they care for their natural resources here, it makes me think that when their mining companies come to exploit the Chilean soil they have the same feeling my friend did when he bought that book. Copper mining consumes 30% of Chile’s electricity, and this electricity represents 42% of its strategic consumables6.
 
Many developed countries propose distributed energy generation. Here in the north they dream seriously of a widespread energy grid composed of 100% solar and wind energy, with batteries in homes and businesses to supply energy at night. Plants currently being built will be capable of storing 1 GWh, enough for a city.  Curiously, these dreams are based on the riches of the Andes, source of 96% of the Lithium imported by the U.S. (50% from Chile and 46% from Argentina) and our country possesses 19% of the estimated worldwide reserves of the mineral7. Nevertheless, we do not seem to be part of that dream.
 
In summary:
The goal to become “among the three OECD countries with lowest average energy supply costs” undermines the other environmental and social goals, and should be eliminated.
 
State support and economic incentives should be established to favor distributed generation and development of alternative energy sources like geothermal and wave farms, among others.
 
In general, the will to take on the costs of clean, sustainable, and socially and environmentally responsible energy production should be clearly and explicitly established, in spite of the negative consequences this could have on the competitiveness of Chilean energy prices.
 
To read the entire proposal visit Energía 2015.

World-renowned alpinist Camilo Rada is a glaciologist and founder of Uncharted and ExpeNewsRada is also a contributing editor to Patagon Journal.