1 February 2010: Chile and low-carbon energy

Last week, I went to Chile to take part in a conference about energy policy – mainly about whether Chile should build nuclear power stations. The current Chilean government has been discussing nuclear energy for the last three years, but has not said yes or no. Instead, it has set up expert commissions, tried to promote a national debate and tried to establish the best possible regulatory regime. However, it is still saying that said that it needs to do more research and undertake more discussions before making even a decision in principle. Chile has been commended by the IAEA as having the best approach to becoming a nuclear generator.

This is a major decision to take and clearly there is no need to rush into it. However, Chile is a fast developing economy, with demand for electricity increasing around 5% most years, with almost all Chilean households now connected to the grid. Chile has major energy security problems, having no significant fossil fuel reserves and importing almost all its gas from Argentina (which has in the past stopped supplies). The essential issue in Chile is whether to build nuclear power stations or coal power stations. The worry, expressed by many at the conference, is that the newly-elected President and government, who take office in March, will mean a loss of momentum. The new president, Sebastian Pinera, has not yet taken a line on nuclear, although most Chileans I spoke to expect him to back it, mainly for energy security reasons.

Of course, nuclear is not the whole answer and the outgoing government had excellent approaches to a range of energy matters. Chile got about 40% of its electricity for hydro in 2007 (when they weren’t given much gas), and 3.7Gw of large hydro is being actively prepared. Given its geography, Chile can expand hydro without having to relocate millions of people. However, the IPCC has predicted that, in the future, Chile will get less rain. The government has therefore been actively promoting energy efficiency, for example by giving 2.8 million low energy light bulbs to low-income households. It has also been promoting wind and small hydro. There is an obligation that all electricity suppliers include 5% from renewables, excluding large hydro, by 2015, and 10% by 2024. Renewable plants below 9Mw pay no grid charges and plants between 9 and 20Mw pay reduced grid charges. Installed wind capacity is still very low – around 200Mw – but the outgoing government has consented to several Gw of new onshore capacity.

Most of the participants at the conference said that Chilean NGOs usually oppose all energy infrastructure, including the grid, which is needed to join the South (with excellent wind potential) to the Centre and North (good solar potential). They were mainly from the energy industry, so not disinterested. However, the NGO woman speaking at the conference certainly did oppose everything. She refused to answer a direct question on whether she would prefer nuclear to coal or large hydro. She said that it is immoral to leave radioactive waste for the future generations, but made no mention of the morality of leaving them to deal with a changing climate. She had been asked to say how a discussion on nuclear should be structured by the Chilean government, but concluded that first there needed to be a discussion with civil society about whether a nuclear discussion is needed. This was a pretty blatant delaying tactic.

Chile can and should develop its wind, mainly in the south, solar in the north, and upgrade the grid to connect them. After 2020, it will be able to get lots of electricity from wave and tidal. However, like everywhere else, it has a long way to go before becoming 100% renewable, so should use nuclear as a low-carbon bridge technology.

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