Sun to keep Atacama Desert’s grapes growing

By Katia Moskvitch
Technology reporter, BBC News, Atacama Desert, Chile

image captionFruit producer Subsole is set to use the Atacama's solar-energy potential

One thing not lacking in Chile's Atacama Desert is sunshine.

Being the driest desert on Earth, it boasts some of the highest levels of sunshine in the world.

Here in the north of Chile, clouds appear on about 30 days a year at most.

Such weather conditions, combined with huge stretches of empty land along the Pacific coast, should make it an ideal place to tap the sun for energy.

But solar panels are almost nowhere to be seen.

So a small solar park in Copiapo Valley seems strangely lost among the orange-red hills and mountains of the Atacama.

It is operated by Subsole, one of Chile's major producers of fresh fruit, and its German partner, renewable energy company Kraftwerk.

"We really wanted to tap into the opportunity that the Atacama Desert offers," says Jose Miguel Fernandez from Subsole, walking in-between the shiny panels that will harness the blistering sun above.

"This project is in line with our commitment to the environment for future generations and a way to get other fruit producers to hopefully follow our path."

Copiapo is a green oasis in the desert, with Subsole's vineyards thriving thanks to a natural underground water reservoir.

And to irrigate those vines, Subsole turns to the sun.

Solar energy will help the firm to pump water during the day and then irrigate in the evening or at night.

The plant's energy capacity is only 300 kWp (kilowatt peak) - enough to power a 20-storey building - but Roberto Jordan, from Kraftwerk's subsidiary in Chile, says that it is the first working industrial-size installation in the whole of Atacama.

And the desert, he adds, is capable of providing much more.

"There is enough sun, there is enough land, so we should really explore further," says Mr Jordan.

Alternative sources

But regardless of the Atacama's potential, only 4% of Chile's energy needs are met by non-conventional renewables like solar, wind, geo-thermal, biofuels and wave power.

Imported fossil fuels account for more than 60% of all electricity production; almost all the rest comes from local hydroelectric projects - many of which have stirred controversy.

image captionRoberto Jordan from Kraftwerk says that solar power technology is becoming more and more affordable

The government's announcement last year that it wanted to build five new hydroelectric dams in the largely pristine Aysen region of Patagonia sparked mass protests around the country.

The state insists that projects like these are crucial to meeting Chile's growing energy needs. Demand is expected to double in the next few years, mostly as a result of the continuing mining boom.

But slowly, the government is starting to pay renewables more attention.

"We need to double our electricity-supply capacity over the next 10 years," says Gabriel Rodriguez, director of energy, science, technology and innovation at Chile's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"We depend mostly on hydroelectricity, which is not easy because of some environmental impacts, and the rest - coal, gas, oil - we need to import.

"So it is essential for our own security of supply to develop renewable energy."

After he took office in March 2010, President Sebastian Pinera outlined an energy plan, pledging to increase renewable-energy use by as much as 20% by 2020.

Sticking to this goal could help Chile on its way to becoming the first developed nation in Latin America - after all, Chile has been its fastest-growing economy since 1990.

Solar energy is one of the sources both the state and private companies are betting on.

Although some experts doubt whether Chile can achieve the objective in such a short time, Jon Farmer, editor of Latin American Newsletters, says given Chile's economic situation it could be possible.

"It is quite ambitious, but out of all the countries in Latin America, I think that one nation that would be able to meet such a target would be Chile," he says.

Another thing that could help Chile in its solar energy quest is the falling cost of solar power technology.

According to Kraftwerk, prices for solar panels went down by 30% in 2011, and this year, they are expected to decrease even further.

Turning away from more traditional energy sources like coal can be tricky, though: in Subsole's case, the firm first had to find funding.

image captionThe solar plant has been built to irrigate Subsole's vineyards in the Atacama

It managed to secure some from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

"We gave Subsole a $32m (£20m) loan, helping the company with the project because it is very important. The renewable-energy market in Chile is still not very well developed," says the IDB's representative in Chile, Maria Urriba.

"It is something the government is working on - trying to change the carbon matrix that Chile has by creating more alternative, renewable sources - and we wanted to take part in that, too."

Mining firms

Ms Urriba stresses that the state should really push the renewable-energy front, particularly for the benefit of the biggest energy consumers: mining companies in the Atacama.

The country is heavily dependent on copper production, which makes up about 70% of all Chilean exports.

Little wonder that the mining industry swallows more than half of Chile's energy supply, and its demand is set to grow even further.

"The big challenge for Chile is to provide renewable energy for the mining sector - and it is possible, because the Atacama Desert has perfect conditions to harness solar energy," says Ms Urriba.

It is happening, albeit slowly.

State-owned copper-mining company Codelco, together with Spanish renewable-energy firm Solarpark, is building a solar-energy installation near the city of Calama.

Once it is operational, the Calama III plant will supply one megawatt of electricity to the world's biggest mine, Chuquicamata.

Whether Chile is able to meet its ambitious 20% goal by 2020 remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain - slowly but surely, the country is realising the potential the Atacama has to offer.

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