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Hydroelectricity at a price
Benjamin Witte-Lebhar
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Energy companies eye southern Chilean region for massive hydroelectric project.

The pristine Aysen region of northern Patagonia, in many ways Chile’s last frontier, boasts some of the only remaining virgin wilderness left on the planet.

The verdant region is home to unique flora and fauna, including the endangered huemul, a species of deer indigenous to the southern Andeans, the Chilean pine known as Monkey Puzzle, and Alerces, a South American cousin of the Redwood.

Aysen is also home to some of Chile’s most voluminous rivers, and those powerful, glacier-fed waterways represent a windfall of potential electricity and profits, the country’s largest utility company — Spanish-owned Endesa — calculates. Endesa has been contemplating plans to dam the region’s rivers for the past 40 years.

Gas supply uncertain
Much of the country’s electricity is generated using natural gas. In the past few years, however, Argentina — Chile’s principal natural gas provider — has restricted supply. And, with electricity consumption growing at the alarming rate of almost 7 percent each year, Endesa says the time is right to begin tapping Aysen’s vast water resources.

Working in collaboration with a private Chilean energy company called Colbún, Endesa is advancing on its so-called Aysen Project.

By far the biggest hydroelectric venture in the country’s history, the Aysen Project consists of a US$4 billion-plan for two dams on each of the region’s two largest rivers: the Baker and the Pascua.

The dams are expected to produce an estimated 2,400 megawatts, equivalent to about 30 percent of the energy currently available in central Chile.

Endesa and Colbún, operating through a specially created joint entity called HidroAysen, insist the project is both necessary and sound. The dams promise to free Chile from its vulnerability to ongoing shortages of Argentine natural gas. The Baker and Pascua rivers represent not only a clean and renewable source of energy, but one that is consistent as well, according to HidroAysen.

The project, nevertheless, has its critics. What began as a local coalition of Region XI-based activists, environmentalists, business owners and church leaders has taken on a high-profile, international aspect since the influential US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and celebrities such as Beto Cuevas, former frontman of the Chilean rock group La Ley, joined the opposition.

“Over the last few months I’ve seen that the interest in Patagonia and in this campaign has really grown. I believe that it could be over time one of the largest environmental campaigns in history,” NRDC International Program Director Jacob Scherr told reporters during a recent visit to Chile. “It’s symbolic of what the entire planet is facing, which is getting the energy we need to develop but also trying to protect the planet from the threat of global warming.”

The Aysen Project would be environmentally devastating for the pristine region, say opponents. Not only does the plan involve flooding approximately 93 square kilometers (37 square miles) of wilderness, but it also calls for construction of a 2,000-kilometer (1,250-mile) transmission line — the world’s longest — that would literally cut through huge tracts of protected wilderness.

Other projects in the works
And the project would be just the tip of the iceberg, activists fear. Once the infrastructure is in place other large ventures such as hydroelectricity and mining projects are sure to follow. Indeed, a Swiss mining company called Xstrata — formerly Falconbridge — is also planning to construct a large dam in the area.

“These projects are immense, on a scale that is absolutely unmanageable for this region. They’re unmanageable because this region is very fragile, ecologically, geologically as well as culturally,” says Peter Hartmann, a Coyhaique (Region XI) resident and leading member of broad-based group called the Citizen Coalition for Aysen Life Reserve.

The Coalition and its allies in Santiago and abroad are aware of Chile’s growing electricity needs but insist there are numerous — and as of yet overlooked — alternatives to large-scale hydroelectric dams.

One obvious option is conservation. John Wilson, a councilor for the State of California’s Energy Commission, Chile would do well to follow an example set three decades ago by California.

In the early 1970s California — like Chile — saw its demand for electricity increase between 6 and 7 percent annually. By imposing strict efficiency standards, however, the state was eventually able to reduce that figure to 2 percent, even during a period of sustained economic growth, according to Wilson.

“In Chile, absolutely nothing has yet been done in that respect,” says Juan Pablo Orrego, head of a Santiago-based organization called Ecosistemas. Instead, Chile has simply followed a policy that’s been “imposed” by the country’s private energy companies — particularly Endesa and Colbún — he explains.

“This has blocked out development of energy sources that are friendlier and more respectful to both the environment and the people, such as much smaller hydroelectric plants, which have the potential of producing thousands of megawatts. Of course there’s also the geothermal option, of which nothing has been developed despite the fact we’re in a geothermal zone,” says Orrego.

Before moving ahead with the Project, HidroAysén must first gain approval from Chile’s Environmental Commission, or CONAMA. The joint entity is expected to hand CONAMA a requisite environmental impact study later this year and possibly begin construction on the first of the four dams as early as 2008.

In the meantime, opponents are hoping their campaign continues to gain momentum, as well as the attention of the Chilean government. “Unless the government of Chile steps up and pardons Patagonia, the area will be electrocuted, it will be destroyed,” warns the NRDC’s Scherr.


Protest against dams along the Baker River in Chilean Patagonia. (Photo: Coalición Ciudadana por Aysén Reserva de Vida)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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