HidroAysén's Transmission Line, Finally Made Public, Reveals and Raises Challenges

HidroAysén, the company proposing to build five hydroelectric dams on two of Chile’s wildest rivers in Patagonia, made the route for the project’s transmission line public last week after years of speculation. Although there is very little new information in the route –this narrow country offers only so many options—the map of the line illustrates the numerous geographic, technical and human challenges to the line. It also provides a visual demonstration of the fact that the HidroAysén scheme is neither the only nor the best option for the country’s future energy security.

This route should have been announced in August 2008, when the company presented its environmental impact assessment for the dams. Yet HidroAysén managed to fragment the two components into two separate reviews, making their approval easier than it would have been together. International standards require high-impact projects (e.g. large dams) to be evaluated as one project with their auxiliary components (transmission lines). The 2010 revisions to Chile’s Environmental Law (Ley 20.417) made this mandatory as well, but by then it was too late to apply to the evaluation of HidroAysén proposal.

So after the dams’ three year review process, which was technically deficient and full of procedural irregularities and resulted in a highly contentious approval this past May that is still being challenged in the Supreme Court by the Patagonia Defense Council and others, HidroAysén is trying to smooth the way for the high-voltage transmission line’s approval. By making the route public now, three months ahead of when it plans to submit the line’s full environmental impact assessment, the company can talk openly with the affected communities in hopes of minimizing popular opposition to the full assessment.

Since this transmission line is going to be at the center of public debate and government evaluation for many months, it is important to lay out the facts:

  • This transmission line would be 1,912 kilometers (1,188 miles) long in total. For context, that is longer than the distance from Seattle (WA) to Los Angeles (CA), New Orleans (LA) to Albuquerque (NM), Paris (France) to Belgrade (Serbia), and Hamburg (Germany) to Naples (Italy). It would be one of the longest transmission lines in the world. The first phase would be about 660 kilometers (410 miles) long, from the Patagonia town of Cochrane to the city of Puerto Montt.
  • The transmission line would cross seven of Chile’s fifteen regions, including national parks, private protected areas, priority conservation sites, wetlands and indigenous communities. It would traverse mountains, run around volcanoes and cross fault lines in Chile’s earthquake-prone areas.
  • 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) of the line would run underwater, starting at Río Yelcho and ending in Puerto Montt, where it would join with the main electric grid, called the Central Interconnected System (SIC). By doing so, the route avoids the Chaitén volcano and Pumalín Park – a nature reserve whose owner strongly opposes the dams.  
  • A 70 meter (76.5 yard) wide service lane would be cut underneath the line, potentially fragmenting critical habitat for endemic species, and requiring consistent maintenance. The company will have to raze about 101 hectares (250 acres) of forest and “prune” about 607 hectares (1,500 acres) more during the construction of the line.
  • The line would require 1,500 – 1,700 towers, each around 50 meters (164 feet) high. The company tried to plot many of them behind mountains or in areas where they would not be seen, but people who live in nearby communities certainly would not be able to miss them.
  • HidroAysén must consult with approximately 800 individual property owners to complete the first phase of its plan. The total for the entire length of the line is well over 2000.
  • The transmission line is expected to cost almost US$3.8 - 4 billion. The most recently-stated price tag for the dams is $3.2 billion, totaling $7–7.2 billion for the entire project. Yet, the CFO of Endesa, one of HidroAysén’s parent companies, announced in May that the project would cost $10 billion. When the dams were first submitted for review, the estimated total was $4 billion. So not only has the price tag risen substantially, but the company itself is quoting different numbers.

Both the transmission line and the company’s presentation of it immediately drew criticism. NRDC’s partners in the Patagonia Defense Council, various members of Parliament, musicians, NGOs and citizens have all come out against this latest development in what has become the largest environmental campaign in Chile’s history. Their arguments are all based on the same foundation: Chile does not need HidroAysén for a secure energy future. The country has better, cost-competitive and more sustainable options, and it would be a travesty to invest so much money, damage so much pristine wilderness and affect so many people’s lives simply for the profit of Chilean and European companies.