Chile's new hydropower project will be in the world's most arid desert, but it actually makes sense

chile mountain sea
CC BY-NC 2.0 davide zanchettin

In the past, energy projects in Chile that have involved hydropower have been environmental nightmares. Damming of pristine rivers and running of transmission lines through environmentally sensitive areas have led to an automatic negative association between the words "Chile" and "hydropower."

A new clean energy project set to break ground next year has a brand new approach to creating hydropower in Chile that won't touch any rivers. In fact, it will be located in the world's most arid desert -- the Atacama Desert.

Chile currently imports a majority of its electricity, most of it generated from fossil fuels. The country has needed to find renewable energy solutions that could make it energy independent. Luckily, the country has three wonderful natural resources that can get it there: sun, mountains and the sea.

The Atacama Desert is located where the mountains meet the sea and it gets abundant sunshine, which makes it the ideal location for a new project that would use solar power to pump ocean water up into two reservoirs high in the Andes Mountains. The water would then be released to rush back down the mountain through pipes to a hydroelectric plant where it would generate electricity. Pumped storage hydro plants are not new, but this particular combination of using solar power to pump ocean water up a mountain, and at this scale, definitely is.

chile coastGoogle Maps/Screen capture

The hydroelectric plant will have a capacity of 300 MW, enough to fully power three nearby provinces. The combination solar and hydro plant would solve the inconsistency of solar or wind power alone. The large solar installation will provide the energy to pump the water and will feed energy to the grid while the hydroelectric plant will take over when the sun starts to set.

"This is the only place in the world where a project of this kind can be developed," said Francisco Torrealba, the strategy manager of Chilean energy company Valhalla about Chile's unique geography. The company is looking at other locations within the country that would be equally well-suited.

The reservoirs, which are actually natural depressions that used to be ancient lakes, will hold as much water as 22,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools when full and will be located at the top of a 600 meter cliff. When released, the water will rely on gravity to speed back down where the hydroelectric plant will generate power 24 hours a day.

The project has already received approval from environmental authorities, now it just needs more investors to break ground by the end of next year. It will take about three and a half years to fully build and start generating electricity.

Chile's new hydropower project will be in the world's most arid desert, but it actually makes sense
The project will take advantage of the sun, mountains and sea.

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