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Geothermal Energy in Chile 2.0 with elementary role in replacing coal fired power

El Tatio Geysers, Chile (source: flickr/Phillie Casablanca, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 11 Sep 2018

In this opinion piece, Diego Morata, Director of the University of Chile-based Geothermal Center of Excellence for the Andes in Santiago, Chile describes his view on how geothermal energy can play a fundamental role in replacing coal-fired power generation to reach Chile's 100% renewables goal.

In a recent opinion article published in El Mostrador, Diego Morata, Director of the Geothermal Center of Excellence for the Andes (CEGA) at the University of Chile in Santiago, writes about his view on the future role of geothermal energy in Chile.

While the promised removal from coal from Chile’s Energy Matrix is excellent news, it represents a rather complex exercise. How are we going to replace the abundant energy that coal provides us today? The national electricity system [in Chile] has some 23,800 MWe installed, of which 11,000 MWe are from renewable energy sources, and 12,800 MWe from non-renewable sources, which include slightly more than 5,000 MWe of coal-fired electricity generation.

The hard part of replacing coal is that this source delivers energy all day, all year, and not all energy sources are capable of doing so. Solar energy is not able to do that, with the night being a big issue. The hydroelectric plants depend a lot on seasonal changes and climate changes. Diesel and gas plant can provide around the clock power, but Chile mainly exports these non-renewable fuels and President Pineara’s proposal is to reach a 100% renewable energy matrix.

The output of the 5,000 MWe in coal-fired power generation capacity that are currently injected into the system burning coal must be replaced by energy sources that are capable of supplying baseload energy, that is able to operate on a 24 hour/ 7 days per week basis.  What renewable energy technology can provide this security? At least among those of us dedicated to renewable energy there is a consensus that the answer is one, geothermal energy.

Hydroelectricity is going through difficult times. It simply does not rain as frequently as it used to and rivers do not carry the flow based on which some of the plants were initially designed and built for. The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly noticeable, so now we must also consider a factor of uncertainty regarding a possible lower availability of water in the future and maybe even closer. Wind and solar are interesting resources, but with the seasonality of the possibility to generate electricity, both have their challenges.

The Possibility of concentrated solar power is an alternative to be considered base-load. But today CSPs are still in early stages of development. Geothermal energy, on the other hand, has proven to be efficient for more than 100 years. The Cerro Dominador CSP plant promises to start operating in the beginning of 2020, providing 110 MW of power 24/7. Of course we are talking about an investment of US$1,400 million. And when we say that geothermal energy is expensive than we must consider Chile’s first geothermal power plant of Cerro Pabellon. The plant has a current capacity of 48 MW, with an additional 30 MW expansion planned to start operation in 2020. All this with an original investment that is fourth of what it costs to build the [aforementioned] CSP plant.

Thus, we see that replacing coal with other cleaner alternatives requires a long-term planning exercise to achieve goals that today seem far away, but are actually much closer. Because 30 years is nothing in terms of planning our energy matrix. Do we have a state energy policy that allows us to be moderately optimistic so that in 2050 we have a 100% renewable energy matrix? Ministery Jimenez said at the end of July 2018, “we believe that geothermal energy has great potential to be on the podium of renewable energies.” And one of the results of the Geothermal Table (we reported on it), a public-private body that analyzed the state of geothermal in Chile, indicates that Chile’s geothermal potential could be between 1,300 and 3,800 MWe. So, what do we expect as a country?

A look at what goes beyond the period of a government in office is urgently needed. As a government you need to look carefully. And I hope that the State looks at the energetic treasure that hides under our feet. I want to share the statement made by Minister Jimenez: “It is essential to take full advantage of our natural potential.” It is not about discussing whether geothermal energy is better than CSP. How luck we have a lot of sun and many volcanoes! We do not need a competition, but understanding the complimentary nature of technologies at hand. Undoubtedly, the decarbonization of Chile opens the door to geothermal energy.
Lets work as a country to be a real opening, which is not a service door (or the back door …) so we can think of a truly green future [for Chile]

The text is a translated opinion piece from El Mostrador, by Diego Morata, Director of the University of Chile-based Geothermal Center of Excellence for the Andes in Santiago, Chile.

Source: El Mostrador