Yesterday, Chile's environmental authorities approved HidroAysén's proposal to build five dams on two of Patagonia's wildest rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. The 11-to-one vote ended an almost three year review process for what has become the biggest environmental controversy in the country's history. The company and the government have lauded HidroAysén and other large conventional energy projects as the best way to meet Chile's future energy demand. However, given the low quality of HidroAysén’s environmental impact assessment, the procedural irregularities and recent charges of misconduct among actors during the review, new technical studies proving the growing viability of other energy options, and the question of the 1300 mile-long transmission line needed to carry the dams' 2750 MW to the main grid, this decision was an unfortunate step backward for Chile, particularly as an OECD country looking to modernize its grid and create energy security and independence.
The reasons why HidroAysén should not be constructed are numerous. Here are the major ones:
1. The environmental impact assessment still woefully lacks the information needed for approval. After nearly three years and over 15,000 pages of environmental impact documents, HidroAysén still failed to properly assess the environmental impacts of the dams. The documents did not correctly identify the area of influence of the dams or use correct baseline data. They did not properly assess the impacts on the local flora and fauna in the Baker and Pascua watersheds, such as the huemul, an endangered Andean deer and national symbol of Chile. The company used incorrect assumptions and data to measure and assesses the sedimentation in the rivers as well as glacial hazards –particularly glacial lake outburst floods— that pose risks to the dams. They poorly addressed the demographic impacts of the project on local communities, which will be significant. The documents did not attempt to assess the synergistic and cumulative impacts of the project, or weigh it against other options to establish a need for the dams.
2. If built, HidroAysén would open up the Patagonia region to other commercial projects and industries. Not only would HidroAysén cause irreparable damage to the ecosystems, but other large hydro projects, mining operations, and other industrial projects could move into this otherwise untouched and wild place as well. This would be a true shame. Chile’s Patagonia is one of the last large pristine regions on the planet. In Outside Magazine’s 2010 feature on the HidroAysén controversy, the author said it best: “There should be such places.”
3. The review process itself was plagued with irregularities, charges of misconduct on behalf of the reviewing agencies and did not meet international standards. Parliament members filed a lawsuit on Friday based on the documented procedural irregularities evident in the review since 2008. The Regional Municipal Council of Aysén voted to appeal to the Superintendent of the Region for greater transparency among the entire process, particularly after the unexpected resignation of the Regional Director two weeks ago. The national Transparency Council has asked for all files relating to HidroAysén’s review from the Agriculture and Livestock Service, due to charges of document censorship. Other government services face similar charges, such as the National Forestry Corporation , the National Geography and Minerals Service and the Ministry of Housing, whose national offices are accused of having deleted the critical, technical reviews of the dams made by the regional employees and replacing them with innocuous comments intended to ease the project’s approval. In addition, the government itself acknowledged two key weaknesses in this process, the very limited amount of public participation and the segmentation of the reviews for the dams and the transmission line, when it passed new environmental legislation in 2010 that prohibited both. International standards agree with the new legislation. Yet because the dams’ process was already underway, the new law could not apply to HidroAysén’s review.
4. The dams' electric output is not necessary for Chile's future energy security. Energy experts have demonstrated this two times now, first in the 2009 technical study “Are Dams Necessary in Patagonia?” and again in their newly released update of the same study, “Chile’s Energy Future Lies in Energy Efficiency and Renewables”. The authors looked at all the projects proposed for construction through 2025, and the expected demand rates for the same period, and found that neither HidroAysén nor 50 percent of the coal-fired power plants currently in the pipeline are necessary to meet Chile’s future energy needs. HidroAysén has neither responded to these studies, nor demonstrated with its own data an actual need for the dams’ electric output.
5. Chile has better, more secure and more economical energy options: energy efficiency and renewables. No one denies Chile’s remarkable non-conventional renewable energy resources.* Some of the best solar radiation in the world is located in its northern provinces where the energy-consumptive mining industry is focused. Geothermal, wind, biomass and biogas also have amazing potential for growth, and all of these technologies are only becoming more and more affordable. The lowest hanging fruit is energy efficiency, which had been a priority of the previous administration, but has been put on the back-burner so far during President Piñera’s term. Energy experts find that by 2025, the installed capacity of non-conventional renewables could be over 6600 MW, and energy efficiency could contribute more than 3400 MW. Combined, that is more than 10,000 MW, or 3.5 HidroAyséns. The International Energy Agency also recommended that Chile foster these sectors and include them in a discussion about a national energy policy. These energy sources would also created a distributed, secure and stable grid that does not rely on costly fuel imports or a long, risky transmission line.
6. The transmission line is risky and would be counter-productive to Chile’s goal of achieving energy security. The 1300 mile-long transmission line would have to travel through seismically active terrain, under water and around active volcanoes. It would consist of at least 5000 towers, each 50-75 yards high, cutting a swath through national parks, protected areas and over a thousand private properties. Placing such a substantial quantity of the country’s electricity supply in a single energy plant at the other end of such a line is simply not good planning. The risks involved in relying on that line would be too great. The country’s energy supply would be far more secure if a variety of non-conventional renewable plants were built closer to the demand loads they would serve.
7. Tthe majority of Chileans are against the dams. In April, a new Ipsos poll was released that showed that 61.1 percent of Chileans are against large hydro development in Patagonia. That percentage was higher than it has ever been since HidroAysén first proposed its project, illustrating that as the dams become more and more real in the minds of the populace, less and less people think that they are the best way forward.
Chile’s history of energy crises—recently underscored by this year’s severe drought that drastically slowed down the hydro-dependent grid—demonstrate that the country’s continued reliance on large conventional energy sources is not a sustainable model for the future. To break this pattern, Chile needs to build modern grids with a variety of technologies that are stable, distributed, local and flexible. It needs to foster non-conventional renewables and energy efficiency. Rejecting HidroAysén would have sent a clear signal that Chile is serious about boosting those sectors and being a real player in the global future of non-conventional renewable technologies.
Sadly, the authorities showed yesterday that they prefer to move in the opposite direction – at the expense of Patagonia.
*In Chile, the phrase “non-conventional renewable energy” is used to exclude hydro power over 20 MW.