This weekend's Bicentennial celebration is a time for Chile to look forward and make decisions about its energy future


This weekend is the Bicentennial anniversary of Chile’s independence from Spain.  For four days (Friday-Monday), Chileans are celebrating their country’s history with traditional food, drink, dance and festivals. 

Yet this is also an opportunity for Chileans to look forward and make crucial decisions about their country’s energy future.  They can decide to continue their dependence on destructive mega-hydroelectric projects and dirty coal-fired power plants, or to pursue a cleaner, more secure path and become a regional leader in renewable and efficient technologies.  President Sebastian Piñera and Energy Minister Ricardo Raineri’s upcoming trip to the USA this week, when they’ll reaffirm Chile’s commitment to grow clean energy, highlights the importance of this pressing choice.

Energy is a daily topic of conversation in Chile right now, making it ever more clear that the time is ripe for Chileans to have an open, comprehensive discussion about their future energy growth and for the government to create a strategic energy policy that takes into account all of its resources (as recommended by the International Energy Agency in its 2009 Energy Policy Review).  Two planned mega-projects are facing new delays and challenges.  The government just recently delayed by three years its timetable for proposed construction of HidroAysén, a massive, 2750MW hydro-electric scheme that would dam two of Patagonia’s most pristine rivers.  The environmental and social impacts that these dams and the accompanying 2200-km long transmission line would cause in this untouched wilderness – one of NRDC’s BioGems – would be tremendous, and likely irreversible.  A 2009 technical study proved that its proposed energy output is not even necessary.  And Castilla, a proposed 2300MW coal-fired power plant, just lost an important court case that could impede its construction. 

At the same time, the defeat of the Barrancones coal-fired power plant (a GDF Suez project proposed for construction next to the Punta de Choros marine protected area) earlier this month raised popular awareness of the country’s dirty energy development and proved that environmental concerns are both very real and very important.  When President Piñera doubled the national renewable portfolio standard to 20% of energy generation by 2020, he raised the profile of Chile’s potential for non-conventional renewable energy.  (In Chile, the phrase “non-conventional renewable energy” is used to exclude hydro projects over 20MW from the category.)  And Minister Raineri is fostering geothermal development by granting 170 new concessions and investing $200 million in support to geothermal projects. 

President Piñera and Minister Raineri’s upcoming trip to the US will be an ideal time for them to commit to creating policies that encourage Chile’s non-conventional renewable and efficiency sectors. Chile needs policies that create a secure market for the domestic and international companies looking to invest in Chile’s non-conventional renewable energy potential.  These new projects would be able to come online relatively quickly, and could respond flexibly to new demand projections as needed.  Efficiency measures, such as decoupling and new standards for industrial equipment and residential appliances, could dramatically help the country reach its “20% by 2020” goal by lowering the total amount of energy consumed (so that growth in non-conventional renewables will count for a larger percentage of the total.)  These advances would create jobs, foment economic growth, and put Chile on the path to being a true regional leader.  The alternatives – massive hydroelectric schemes like HidroAysén, and colossal coal-fired power plants like Castilla – would lock the country into dependence on dirty and environmentally destructive energy generation for decades to come. 

So Happy Bicentennial, Chile.  I am fortunate enough to be in Santiago right now and to witness the enthusiasm with which Chileans are celebrating their country’s first 200 years. 


As the Chilean government enjoys reflecting on the past, it should also be looking ahead and making the right choices to help the country transition to a clean, efficient and sustainable energy future.