Damming Patagonia

Despite the focus in the U.S. media on discussions of healthcare, individual mandates, and strip searches, the U.S. Supreme Court is not the only Supreme Court that made significant news last week. 5,000 miles away, in Santiago, the Chilean Supreme Court finally ruled on the controversial HydroAysén mega-dam project, approving it in a split 3-2 decision.  It seems unlikely that this will have the same kind of invasive impact on the lives of Americans that SCOTUS’s recent decisions have, but it is a significant setback in the global fight to preserve biodiversity and encourage sustainable development.

As a brief reminder, the HydoAysén project is a collection of five proposed large hydroelectric dams that will be placed on the two largest rivers in Chilean Patagonia.  These two rivers – the Baker and Pascua drain the water of the largest ice sheet, outside of Antarctica, in the world.  They flow through an enormous, nearly untouched wilderness.  The only current access is a partially paved, rutted, and mostly single-lane road cut through the temperate rainforest that blankets the fjords of Southern Chile.  The proposed dams would bring 2500MW of power to the Chilean grid but it is power that would be used nearly exclusively in Santiago – 1500 km to the north.  In fact, the Aysén region has its own electricity grid that will not be connected to the power provided by the dams.  None of the power generated by the project will be consumed locally.  The feeling that they are being exploited for their resources has led the people of Aysén to take the lead in protesting the construction of the dams along with 74% of the Chilean population (Spanish).

Despite the overwhelming majority in opposition to the project, the Supreme Court voted on Wednesday to uphold a lower court ruling and allow the project to go forward.  In doing so, they have removed a significant obstacle to the project and increased the feeling of inevitability around the dams.  A decision against the dams would have been a major setback for Endesa – the company proposing the project – and considering that the environmental impact assessment on the transmission line is still pending, the decisiom might have represented the beginning of the end of the project.  The decision in favor of the project, on the other hand, underscores the feeling that the wants of business, especially those ostensibly acting the national interest, are of more importance than the wishes of an average Chilean.  Reports (Spanish) that one of the judges voting in favor of the project holds nearly $200,000 in stock in Endesa do little to counter this impression.

However, the story of the HydroAysén dams is far from over.  Patagonia Sin Represas, the leading group in opposition to the projects, has suggested that they will continue to fight the project.  And the project could still be derailed if the aforementioned transmission line is not approved.  It seems likely that regardless of how the transmission line’s environmental impact assessment is decided, it will be challenged in court in the same way the dams themselves have been challenged.  All of this means that it may be unlikely that the dams actually begin construction by the planned 2014 start date.

In the meantime, despite the setback of the court’s decision, Chile does appear to be moving in a more sustainable direction with regard to their energy policy.  A split decision on the HydroAysén project, in a country where these projects have historically been rubber-stamped, is encouraging.  The recent decision of an appellate court (Spanish) to block a permit for a coal powered plant in Northern Chile paves the way for the growing solar industry in the north to fill the gap in power demand.  1400 MW of solar power have been added in the Atacama since 2011 with several more projects, including a 220 MW PV project, currently under construction or slated to begin construction.  With some of the highest solar capacities in the world, the Atacama is a prime candidate for solar installations and has the added advantage of placing the power generation in close proximity with the northern copper mines – Chile’s largest power consumer.

Chile’s relationship with wind energy is more mixed.  A new project several hundred kilometers north of Santiago offers 46 MW to the grid and Chile has a documented potential for 40,000 MW of wind powerControversy has blown up around a 56 turbine project on the coast of the island of Chiloe in Chile’s south.  Citing concerns over indigenous rights, the Supreme Court voted last month to block the environmental project.  Despite the fact that this decision blocked a clean energy project, it is refreshing to see the court blocking investment on social and environmental grounds.  It also underscores the importance of getting project location correct, even if that project is an otherwise green alternative.

As Chile pushes forward into the ranks of the developed world it will require growth in its energy sector.  The ultimate success of Chile’s growth will be measured by how it gets this energy.  If it embraces its plentiful endowments of renewable energy it will be counted a success.  Failure will be a continuation of its dependence on imported coal and oil or the development of renewable projects that, like HydroAysén, offer renewable energy at the expense of globally unique habitats.  The recent Supreme Court decisions suggest that Chile has not yet fully embraced renewables but it is on the right path in that direction.