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Opinion: On how geothermal can and should help replace coal power in Chile

Cerro Pabellon geothermal power plant, Chile (source: ENAP)
Alexander Richter 3 May 2018

Diego Morata, Director of the Andean Geothermal Center of Excellence (CEGA) shared his view on how geothermal energy can play an important role in replacing coal-fired power generation in Chile.

In an opinion article shared on El Mostrador in Chile, Diego Morata, Director of the Andean Geothermal Center of Excellence (CEGA) in Chile, he presents on how geothermal energy can save Chile in replacing coal.

Last December, Chile took a big step towards becoming a more sustainable country. Energy Minister Andrés Rebolledo signed the commitment not to install more coal-fired thermoelectric plants. Specifically, the commitment aims not to build more plants with current technology and that if new thermoelectric  plants are installed, it should be with particle capture technology which is supposed to be much more friendly to the environment. It is a big step, but doubts remain. In fact, recently electricity generating companies using coal-fired plants, have begun the process of closing some of their units or have committed to stop building them

The removal of coal is a widespread trend in most OECD countries. And, while these are news for optimism, I am still restless about how Chile will face the challenge of removing coal from our energy matrix. . Today, we have installed almost 5,000 MWe of coal-fired power generation capacity. Almost 20% of our energy matrix is based on this technology that causes so much damage to the environment. We can not foreget our fellow citizens who live in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants. Why should they not be able to breath clean air? If Chilean society really demanded the closure of coal-fired power plants by 2050 (following, in addition, President Pinera’s electoral promise of having a 100% renewable energy country by that date), how are we going to get there?

There is only one type of clean energy in Chile capable of supplying the contribution that coal makes today: geothermal energy, the heat of the Earth. It is true that a large part of these 5,000 MWe of coal  could be replaced by solar energy, the most popular renewable energy source today. But solar is an intermittent energy. Geothermal energy delivers basic energy, constant, all day, all night, without intermittence by the weather or the seasons. The developed countries with whom we like to compare ourselves with have been using this type of energy for more than 100 years.

It is though known that it takes about 6-8 years to develop a geothermal power plant. On the other hand, the most conservative estimates of the Geothermal Council in Chile suggest that Chile could develop at least some 1,300 MWe with geothermal by 2050. At the same time, private developers of geothermal projects indicate that the low prices of electricity in Chile are not particularly favourable for the development of geothermal energy projects. So, without a policy that encourages the development of geothermal energy, we will not be able to replace coal with a source of energy that will allow us to secure the base(-load) energy we need. It is a reflection that the new Ministry is processing.

I applaud President Pinera’s proposal to bet on a 100% renewable Chile by 2050. That would give us independence and energy security. But 2050 is not that far away.

Non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) today represent a promising a 19% and it is easy to imagine that before 20205 we will have reached more than 20% of our energy matrix with NCREs. It is a great achievement. Definitely. But we are still far from having a fossil-fuel-free energy matrix (of which we, as a country, do not even have resources).

A country policy on energy issues is necessary. Chileans have the right to live in a clean and save country energetically speaking. And it is our volcanoes, that in their kindest face give us an enormous potential of geothermal energy, clean and constant, that can help us to achieve an environment of well-being for all in, in tune with sustainable development.

Source: El Mostrador