Dams, Patagonia, and Chile's energy future

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The national debate that has erupted in Chile over its energy future and the future of Patagonia brings new optimism. As Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef commented in a recent interview: “The approval of HidroAysen might just be a good thing, because it is uniting the country against the project.” 

Recent polls provide strong evidence backing up Max-Neef’s statement: before the May 9 approval of five large-scale dams in the Aysen region, a poll by IPSOS showed 61 percent of Chileans rejected the project while this past Sunday, Santiago newspaper La Tercera released a poll which stated 74 percent of Chileans do not want the dams to be built.

These are historic protests taking place throughout Chile. An unprecedented 30,000-plus protestors came together in the center of Santiago last Friday evening, May 13. This Saturday, May 21, we will likely see one of the largest anti-dam protests ever. And as the aforementioned polls bear witness, these protests include people from the political left, center and right. Chileans of all political stripes are uniting against the HidroAysen project in part because it was approved under questionable circumstances -- a governmental evaluation process that exposed an unfair and corrupted environmental decision-making process and a government that seemingly favors powerful corporations over the will of the citizenry. In part, too, because of the immense loss to Chile’s future by irreversibly destroying two pristine rivers in the heart of Patagonia and by bulldozing an absurd, 2300-km electric line through numerous parks and protected areas, a “Great Wall of Deforestation,” as one Spanish writer call its, through seven regions in Chile’s south to connect the power to Santiago.

Many are rightly in disbelief after hearing President Sebastian Pinera, governmental ministers and highly paid lobbyists state flawed, and sometimes downright mistaken, arguments advocating for the HidroAysen project.

First, the Chilean president and his energy minister have publicly suggested that Chile must urgently double its energy supply by the end of this decade if it is to meet rising demand.

According to University of Chile energy expert Roberto Roman, the president is basing his statement on energy demand growing by 7 percent. Says Roman: “Chile’s energy use has grown at an annual rate of just 3.8 percent in the last 11 years, and any reasonable analysis shows a growth rate no greater than 4.5 percent per year over the rest of this decade.” Further still, according to a 2009 study done by Roman and other energy experts from the University of Chile, the country already has sufficient energy from projects approved and under construction to meet the country’s needs up to 2025.

Second, several HidroAysen advocates in the government have incredibly stated that it is not possible to meet Chile’s future energy needs without HidroAysen and that non-conventional renewable energies are more expensive or not enough.

A study this year by the private Chilean firm Valgesta Energia done at the request of the Chilean Association for Renewable Energies (ACERA) found that last year, by just increasing to 3.3 percent of Chile’s energy grid the use of non-conventional renewable energy sources such as solar or wind, it reduced the annual operational cost of Chile’s grid by $US 129 million and lowered marginal costs by 3.3 percent. In other words, adding non-conventional renewable energy to Chile’s grid stabilizes the country’s electric system and lowers costs.

Experts agree that it’s eminently feasible to achieve President Pinera’s “aspirational” goal of 20 percent of Chile’s energy stemming from non-conventional renewables by 2020 (which would make HidroAysen further still unnecessary). What’s missing? Chile needs to break down the regulatory barriers to its energy market, allowing diverse companies to enter which in turn sparks competition that leads to lower energy prices over time. Currently, Chile’s energy is dominated by two large companies, Italian-owned Endesa and Chile’s Colbun, the joint partners in HidroAysen, which with an operational HidroAysen could control about 80 percent of Chile’s energy. Long-term, the United Nations Panel on Climate Change forecasts that Chile – and the world – could meet 80 percent of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2050.

Third, HidroAysen vice-president Daniel Fernandez has suggested in varied media over the past week that the trend in other countries is to build more big dams. Actually, it’s the complete opposite in developed countries. As I wrote in a September 2008, article for Newsweek, in the US and Europe big dams are seen as unsafe, overly expensive and disastrous to the environment.

Of the more than 45,000 big dams around the world today, 90 percent were constructed in the past 50 years. But since the mid-1970s, the rate of construction of big dams has declined worldwide by three-fourths and most of the dams built today are undertaken in developing countries. In the U.S., today less than 10 percent of electricity comes from dams and more Americans are clamoring to tear down dams than to build them. "Compliance with environmental legislation in developed countries is strict. Whereas in places like Brazil its easier for the government to use political manuevers to get liscensing for dams," says Patrick McCully, an expert on hydroelectric dams and former director of the International Rivers Network.

Big dams have fallen out of favor in developed countries in part because of cost and performance issues. According to the 2000 World Commission on Dams report, the construction of large dams on average costs 56 percent more than originally planned and 30 to 50 percent of big dams have fallen far short of their original energy goals. In addition, dams from 25 to 50 years old at some point typically require major repairs and thousands of older dams are presently considered unsafe. Sanjeev Khagram, a former senior policy advisor to the World Commission on Dams, told me in an interview: "The American Society of Civil Engineers has done many studies showing that the costs of handling some of these aging dams in disrepair is astronomical. Some argue it will cost the U.S. more than social security reform."

Long-term, Chile has energy alternatives that are less costly and less damaging to the environment. Above all, long-term, future generations will thank Chile immensely if it moves away from irreversible destruction and turns toward building an environmentally-sustainable energy system and protecting the spectacular, world-class natural and cultural heritage of Aysen, Chilean Patagonia.

 

 

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