What Chile's Colbún did right at Angostura

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Monday, September 1, 2014

The world over, new forms of group organizing, communication and information gathering brought on by the likes of the internet and social media, have increasingly empowered the common person in demanding that companies earn their social license before they even begin any commercial activity.

This is no less true in Chile, particularly in the power sector, where large thermo projects such as the 2.1GW Castilla, the 566MW Barrancones and the 740MW Punta Alcalde have faced strong social opposition and subsequent legal battles as an ever more litigious Chilean society looks for more environmentally friendly ways to produce power. In Chile even that which is usually considered "clean" power generation, hydro, has its exceptions, giving rise to the concept of non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE), which includes small hydro but not large-scale operations.

One consequence was the rejection of the highly politicized five-dam, 2.75GW HidroAysén hydro project, which most likely means that thermo plants powered by imported gas will have to form the backbone of electric power development in Chile, even as renewables become more economically competitive – making it difficult to achieve the cost control measures outlined in President Michelle Bachelet's 2014-18 energy agenda.

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In this environment, it may come as a surprise that Chilean generator Colbún – a JV partner with Endesa in the Hidroaysén project – was able to pull off what it calls the largest hydroelectric plant built in Chile in the last 10 years.

Starting up operations in April of the 316MW Angostura hydro project, Colbún says that under normal hydrological conditions the dam accounts for approximately 3% of demand on the central SIC grid.

How did Colbún do it?

According to José Miguel Trabucco, head of public affairs at Colbún, there is no one size fits all strategy, but the key is in rolling up the sleeves, hitting the street and getting to know the community which is to host the project.

"Every community is unique, you have to go and meet the people... to establish trust," he said.

Approach the community early on and have open conversations, Trabucco recommends. "Angostura was inaugurated in April this year, and our first approach with the community was mid-2007, seven months before the environmental impact study," he told BNamericas. "You must recognize that there is a cost involved, but there's also compensation – something better than what they had before."

In the Angostura project, Colbún looked to promote public-private partnerships. It brought together the municipalities, the neighborhood associations, Chile's tourism department Sernatur, and representatives of the local economy such as providers of lodging, hospitality and artisans products. In sustaining meetings and conversations, the company was able to identify what the real desires were of the community, and how it could best help them address these needs.

"The idea isn't about distributing value, but rather creating value in a shared way," Trabucco said, which includes transfer of knowledge and opportunity.

Part of the plan involved the delicate matter of relocating 46 families, which Trabucco said was done in an individual and personalized way as some wanted to relocate in nearby areas and others wanted to move to a different part of the country.

Other issues that arose included the need for public recreation areas. As such, instead of blocking the dam off from public access, Colbún built two beaches, hiking trails, camp sites, scenic overlooks, a water and energy-related visitors center, an auditorium and specialty shops, while also offering guided tours of the dam and launching the website www.angosturadelbiobio.cl.

All of the projects taken on by Colbún, including the construction of a local school, were part of a transversal design that was approved by the community, Trabucco said.

"You need to build trust and show results," he added, recognizing though that "there will always be some people that don't agree with these projects."