Atacama could become "Desertec" of Latin America

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chile's Atacama desert, which according to numerous studies receives more solar radiation than any other desert in the world, has the potential to be transformed into the Desertec of Latin America, according to Cornelia Sonnenberg of the Chilean-German chamber of commerce CAMCHAL.

"Chile can transform its north into Desertec," Sonnenberg said at the sixth annual Chilean-German forum on renewable energy which focused this year on solar and wind power.

The Desertec project seeks to supply Europe with 15% of its power needs by constructing solar plants in the Sahara desert over an area of 6,500m2 and connecting the project to Europe via underground and above ground high-voltage direct current transmission lines.

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Solar power continues to be one of the least developed clean energy sources and remains the most costly. But studies conducted by the national energy commission CNE along with German company GTZ have revealed over 200GW of power potential in an area of 4,000km2 in the Atacama.

While Chile does not yet have installed solar capacity, there is hope that this will change shortly.

In January of this year, Spain's Solarpack was given environmental approval to build the country's first 10MW plant. And Chile has announced plans for two pilot projects for the north of the country.

The first project, to be in the northern Atacama region, will produce 500KW of power through the use of photovoltaic panels.

The second project will have a capacity of 10MW and will incorporate concentrated solar technology.

Chile's energy minister Ricardo Raineri, also speaking at the conference, stressed that solar power remained uncompetitive and that the tender details were not yet available.

"The pilot projects will be announced once the terms of the tender have been finalized," the minister said.

Roberto Hahn, director of Camchal, called for a less cautious approach.

"The Atacama has the best solar radiation in the world," he said. "It is the most arid desert in the world. Instead of a 10MW pilot plant, why not build a 50MW plant and that way attract more interest and investors."