Chile is one of the few countries in the world with a plan to phase out coal-fired power plants (by 2040, for Chile) and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. A cornerstone of this plan is significant development of non-conventional renewable energy plants (that is, renewables excluding large hydroelectric power). Yet, this also presents an environmental paradox: more utility-scale renewables will require more transmission lines, and transmission lines have historically been controversial for impacts on flora, fauna and people. We know that renewable energy generation is fundamental to fighting climate change. So, while energy generation becomes greener from a climate perspective, how can we mitigate the environmental and social footprints of transmission lines?
One answer is a practice known as integrated vegetation management, a strategy designed to minimize high-growing vegetation under transmission lines by selecting and planting low-growing plants in those corridors. In collaboration with scientists, local experts, and communities, these plants can be selected for other attributes as well, such as for being endemic species, pollinators, or species that are resistant to fire. A fundamental part of the design process is consulting with local communities on the siting of the line as well as what grows underneath.
This solution is relevant especially for Chile. The main grid of the long, narrow country already has over 35,000 kilometers (almost 21,750 miles) of transmission lines covering around 88,000 hectares (217,500 acres) of land. The coming years will see an unprecedented increase in the construction of transmission lines, crossing a variety of environments and municipalities, as practically all new generation by 2046 will come from renewables and this electricity must be transported to the demand.
The development of transmission in Chile has historically been highly controversial and has faced strong opposition due to its environmental and social impacts. Chile’s recent history of devastating wildfires—due to droughts and high temperatures caused by climate change—adds yet another complication to transmission infrastructure. Fires of electrical origin have not only increased from 0.5 percent of total fires in 2002 to close to 4 percent in 2016, but the level of destruction these fires leave behind has increased. In the mega-fires of 2017 –the worst in Chile’s history—94,000 hectares (232,280 acres) were devastated by fires of electrical origin, that is, approximately 20 percent of the total area impacted. As a result, a public prosecutor charged the managers of an electric company for its transmission lines’ role in starting five of the fires.
These impacts have led to fierce opposition from communities. The most recent example of public conflict with a transmission project took place in 2018, when communities protested the construction of the Cardones-Polpaico line that was needed to connect the former Northern and Central grids into one main grid and to transport mostly renewable energy to the center and south of the country.
Fortunately, Integrated Vegetation Management—and a meaningful process to implement the it—can go a long way towards mitigating the physical impacts of transmission lines, incorporating the concerns and wishes of nearby communities, and reducing vulnerability to wildfires caused by transmission lines. It can also be more cost-effective for transmission companies than maintaining traditional vegetation practices under their lines.
One highly successful example of these principles put into practice is the pilot project called LIFE-Elia. Led by a team of seven people with a total budget of 3 million Euros, the LIFE-Elia project transformed 221 kilometers of barren corridors under high-voltage lines in forested areas into restored and functional green spaces. The project was supported by two transmission companies, one Belgian and the other French, as well as a local region in Belgium and the European Union. The team leaders used four different types of “interventions” to restore the environment and benefit nearby communities:
- “Structured edges” consisted of planting and restoring forest edges with endemic and low-growing species, and by planting orchards
- “Open land management” consisted of improving meadows and pastures for grazing animals and wildflowers
- “Natural habitats” consisted of restoring peat lands, moors, meadows, etc.
- “Ponds an invasive species” consisted of digging ponds and removing invasive species.
Importantly, the team leaders consulted with a variety of experts and local communities throughout the project to get as much input as possible and improve their chances of success. The results of the LIFE-Elia project were significant across a variety of topics:
- From an electricity perspective, the lines were safer and more secure
- Environmental and biodiversity benefits included the return of species which were thought extinct in those areas
- Aesthetic benefits for people living nearby
- Economic benefits for local communities, who had increased land for orchards, grazing, etc.
- Greater efficiency in the authority’s permitting process
- As mentioned above, it was more cost-effective for the transmission companies than their traditional vegetation management practices.
If something can be learned from the current situation, is that we need to do things better, more sustainably. As countries around the world invest in renewable energy, they need to also ensure that the investments in transmission lines are as sustainable as they can be. The LIFE-Elia project—as well as many other examples of integrative vegetation management—proves that there is a better way to do this. Through the implementation of LIFE-Elia like pilots, Chile and the Latin American region can build the capacity to implement integrative vegetation management on a large scale and lead the way into a new era of sustainable investment.