Saying no to large hydropower and yes to solar and wind in Chile

The Gulf oil disaster has provided us with a moment for reflection on the costs of what has been our energy policy globally – to allow large companies to go after the sources of energy they know best: fossil fuels, large hydropower, and nuclear.  This is a path that takes us backwards and generally benefits a few large companies, rather than encouraging long-term energy security and economic growth based on clean energy technology. At NRDC, we work on showing the path towards the clean energy of the 21st century, using the power of the sun, wind and the earth to move us forwards. We have said no to tar sands oil from Canada and yes to fuel efficiency standards. We have said no to mountain-top removal in Appalachia and yes to putting solar and wind resources into the electricity grid. And we have said no to large hydropower in Patagonia in Chile, and yes to the country becoming a leader in environmentally sustainable renewable energy sources and efficiency.

Chile has amazing resources for solar, wind, geothermal – and even eventually the power of the tides and waves. We heard that many times during an NRDC trip to Santiago over the last few days during meetings with our partners as well as representatives from the government, private sector and academia. There is much support for protection of the magnificent natural resources of Patagonia for future generations in Chile and globally. The current threat to Patagonia is from the proposed HidroAysén hydroelectric project that would dam wild rivers in the south to provide energy to industry hundreds of miles to the north. Chile has led the way in economic stability and growth in the Latin America and in May became a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Chile has the potential to be a regional leader in solar, wind, ocean and geothermal energy. It also has a real potential to use energy efficiency and conservation to reduce demand.  Clean energy, efficiency and conservation can not only fuel Chile’s plan for economic growth, but can become a continuing source of economic growth in and of itself by launching a new clean energy industry that will create jobs and provide new investment opportunities for domestic and international capital.  This is something large hydropower or fossil fuel sources of energy simply cannot do.

In May, Chile’s new President, Sebastián Piñera, said that he supports a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions growth of 20% by 2020 and announced a plan to raise Chile’s non-conventional renewables goal from 10% to 20% of total generation by 2020. These are important commitments and show leadership coming from Chile on clean energy. But the next step is for Chile to put these commitments into practice. Chile faces a similar choice to many other nations around the world right now. It can move forward building a clean energy economy that is good both for long-term economic growth and environmental protection or it can remain in the past supporting fossil fuels and large hydropower as its main sources of energy. 

Just as we see happening around the world right now, Chile is struggling with a reality of how to make environmentally sustainable renewable energy be the transition, rather than relying on further expansion of fossil fuels, large hydropower and nuclear. What is clear is that governments that see clean energy not only as a source of energy but as a growth sector for economic development and jobs, will be the ones that take the lead in their regions and globally. Chile, with its rich sun, wind, geothermal and wave resources is well positioned to play a leading role, if it can break down some of the barriers to renewables and level the playing field for the smaller renewable energy and energy efficiency industries in the face of the entrenched fossil fuel and hydropower industry. In doing this, Chile will also find a way to preserve its wild rivers, rich estuaries, and wildlands of Patagonia for its future generations. So few wild places remain on Earth – the countries privileged to steward such resources have an important responsibility to choose a path that ensures long-term conservation, energy security and lasting economic development over short-term gains for a few large companies.

About the Authors

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz

Chief Program Officer

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