Upcoming Visit of Chilean President and Energy Minister to Washington Provides Unique Opportunity for Sustainable Reconstruction

Next week, Chile’s new President Sebastian Piñera and Energy Minister Ricardo Raineri will be in Washington, D.C. attending energy-related meetings. President Piñera will attend the Nuclear Security Summit on April 12-13, hosted by President Obama, and Minister Raineri will participate in the Energy and Climate Ministerial of the Americas on April 15-16, hosted by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu with the participation of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The purpose of the Ministerial meetings is for hemispheric energy leaders to discuss solutions to energy issues and innovative projects in their countries. 

Both President Piñera’s and Minister Raineri’s visits to Washington would be an ideal opportunity for Chile to commit making renewable technologies and efficiency measures leading tools in the reconstruction efforts after the devastating earthquake that struck the country on February 27. It would also be an appropriate context in which to make distributed generation a priority of Chile’s future energy policy as the reconstruction effort gets underway.

On February 27, the earthquake—and the ensuing tsunamis and aftershocks—left an enormous task in the hands of President Piñera and his administration as he began his term March 11. A subsequent blackout on March 14 left the large majority of the population without power for hours, underscoring the weakness of the centralized electric grid and the need for a more reliable, secure one. Both President Piñera and Minister Raineri have signaled their desires for clean energy measures to play a role in the reconstruction process, though neither has yet outlined specific plans.

Rebuilding infrastructure as well as ensuring Chileans that their electricity supply will be stable in the face of future disasters are surely at the top of Piñera’s agenda. And Chile has all of the natural resources at its disposal to do just that via clean, modern, sustainable methods:  remarkable solar power in the north; geothermal potential running the length of the country; strong wind on both land and the ocean; tidal power along the entire coast; abundant small hydro options close to the main grid.  Additionally, Chile still has huge gains to make from increased efficiency measures. 

Yet the government still hesitates to make this commitment by continuing to consider distant large hydro mega-projects, such as HidroAysén and Río Cuervo, as viable solutions. Distributed generation, which “involves the technology of using small-scale power generation technologies located in close proximity to the load being served” could help avoid future blackouts. Reliance on HidroAysén, on the other hand, would place Chile’s energy security in a risky (and costly) project over 2000 km away from the load.

Clearly, this administration is in a difficult position. In the short term, they must help the 1.5 million people who were affected by these catastrophes, and build approximately 40,000 emergency housing units for displaced citizens before the winter arrives in just a couple of months. In the long term, they must reconstruct entire cities and towns, including residential, commercial, public and industrial buildings.  By committing to focus on renewables and efficiency during both of these processes, President Piñera and Minister Raineri would send a clear signal that Chile is moving away from old ideas and towards modern technologies – in both thought and action.