(I wrote most of this post yesterday - April 1.)
Let’s try a different headline. China, Chile, America - which does not belong?
If you picked America, you would be correct. China and Chile are leading the way in solar energy investment. This is another way in which Trump’s MAGA is a race to the bottom.
The Washington Post reports that While Trump promotes coal, Chile and others are turning to cheap sun power. Chile, the main focus of the report, aims to be “A solar Saudi Arabia.”
The Atacama desert in Chile is possibly the driest, sunniest place on the planet. It also is a popular tourist destination being home to some of the most interesting geological formations and ecologies: check out flocks of flamingos in the high plains salt flats, volcanoes, valley of the moon, the Andes, and more things to do in San Pedro de Atacama.
The Atacama is also interesting because of Chile’s immense national copper mine. Chile put this mine in place where no rational person would want to live - and then built a whole city to house the (well-paid) miners.
In addition to tourist cash and copper, the Atacama is an ideal place to situate massive solar arrays. No rain means no atmospheric interference with sun light. And that means super efficient solar production.
The sun is so intense and the air so dry that seemingly nothing survives. Across vast, rocky wastes blanched of color, there are no cactuses or other visible signs of life. It’s Mars, with better cellphone reception.
It is also the world’s best place to produce solar energy, with the most potent sun power on the planet.
So powerful, in fact, that something extraordinary happened last year when the Chilean government invited utility companies to bid on public contracts. Solar producers dominated the auction, offering to supply electricity at about half the cost of coal-fired plants.
It wasn’t because of a government subsidy for alternative energy. In Chile and a growing list of nations, the price of solar energy has fallen so much that it is increasingly beating out conventional sources of power. Industry experts and government regulators hail this moment as a turning point in the history of human electricity-making.
“This is the beginning of a trend that will only accelerate,” said Chilean Energy Minister Andrés Rebolledo. “We’re talking about an infinite fuel source.”
President Trump ordered U.S. regulators this week to reverse Obama-era policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and he has promised to “bring back” the U.S. coal industry. But construction of coal-fired power plants dropped 62 percent over the past year worldwide, according to a survey by the Sierra Club and other activist groups. In China last year, the number of new permits for coal-fired plants fell by 85 percent.
More worldwide generating capacity is now being added from clean sources than coal and natural gas combined, according to a December report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which closely tracks investment in renewables.
An investor in Chile wanting to build a hydroelectric dam or coal-fired plant potentially faces years of costly political battles and fierce resistance from nearby communities. In contrast, a solar company can lay out acres of automated sun-tracking panels across an isolated stretch of desert and have them firing quiet, clean electricity in less than a year, with no worries about fluctuating fuel prices or droughts. The sunlight is free and shows up for work on time, every morning.
Long dependent on energy imports, Chilean officials now envision their country turning into a “solar Saudi Arabia.” Chile’s solar energy production has increased sixfold since 2014, and last year it was the top-scoring clean-energy producer in the Americas, and second in the world to China, according to the Bloomberg rankings. (China is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases but also the leading investor in renewable energy.)
Driving the global shift to cheap sun power is a dramatic decline in the cost of the photovoltaic (PV) panels that can be used to create giant desert solar farms or rooftop home installations. China produces more than two-thirds of the world’s PV panels, and their price has fallen more than 80 percent since 2008.
Unlike many of South America’s other major countries, Chile has virtually no oil or gas deposits. With a heavy dependence on imported fuel, Chileans have been paying some of the highest electricity rates in the region, but prices are falling as renewable sources come online.
The Atacama is well-suited to solar energy production for the same reasons astronomers put high-powered telescopes in northern Chile for the clearest possible Earth-based views of the cosmos.
In nations such as Japan and Germany, which are some of the world leaders in solar energy production, the sun’s rays are partly diffused by water molecules floating in the air, even on days when it isn’t cloudy.
But in the super-dry Atacama, where it virtually never rains, the photons beam straight down. Put a solar panel beneath them and it’s like plugging into the sun.
At the Finis Terrae solar plant near the tiny town of Maria Elena, more than 500,000 PV panels blanket the desert. The 160-megawatt plant was the largest solar installation in Latin America when it went online last summer, capable of powering nearly 200,000 homes. Since then, another Chilean plant has surpassed it.
I am skipping over some of the hassles Chile faces because of the harsh conditions - the extreme radiation - in the Atacama. But the biggest problem with solar is what to do when the sun goes down. Chile is working on it. “Chile could generate all of its electricity with about 4 percent of the desert’s surface area, if there were a way to efficiently store and distribute that energy.”
A company looking to bridge this gap in Chile is building Latin America’s first solar thermal plant. You can see its solitary tower rising from the desert for miles around, like some sort of alien religious shrine. At nearly 700 feet, it is the second-tallest building in Chile.
Instead of PV panels, the solar thermal plant will have 10,000 giant, rotating mirrors set in concentric circles around the tower. They will concentrate the sun’s rays on a huge boiler at the top, filled with molten salts, that reaches more than 1,000 degrees and glows like the Eye of Sauron in “The Lord of the Rings.”
The superheated salts ooze downward to steam turbines at the base of the tower, retaining enough energy to generate electricity all night. It’s essentially a giant, rechargeable $1.4 billion battery.
The plant’s owner, Cerro Dominador, a subsidiary of U.S.-based EIG Global Energy Partners, says it will be completed in 2019. Larger solar thermal facilities based on the technology are in operation in California, and Chile has issued permits for others.
Ivan Araneda, the company’s top executive, said such solar thermal facilities can transform the industry.
“The attack on renewables is that they’re too expensive, but this is efficient, proven technology,” Araneda said. “On an even playing field, renewables can compete with anything.”