These Massive Renewable Energy Projects Are Powering Chilean Mines

Stock SectorAugust 7, 201816min8
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Minerals are so abundant in Chile’s northern Atacama Desert, you can get copper just by kicking the mountain—or so says one of the miners’ favorite proverbs. A century after many of the mines there were first opened, finding copper—or gold, or lithium, or iron ore—isn’t that easy. The concentration of minerals in the earth decreases as the miners dig deeper, meaning companies need to process more ore to extract the same amount of metal, a messy and highly polluting process to begin with. To fuel that effort, they need vast amounts of energy.

#lazy-img-329930628:beforepadding-top:66.72%;GNL Mejillones S.A., a joint venture between Codelco and French-Belgian Engie, operates the natural gas port for northern Chile. Until recently, mines had to rely on imported fossil fuels, making electricity extremely expensive.
Coal- and gas-fired power plants in Mejillones on the coast of northern Chile. Until recently, mines had to rely solely on imported fossil fuels, making electricity extremely expensive.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings

Chile has little in the way of fossil fuels, leading it to rely on imports and making electricity there extremely expensive. In 24 of the last 30 years, the country’s energy prices were higher than the world average; at its peak in 2011, the price per kilowatt-hour reached $150.90, almost double the global average.

In 2013, Chile passed a law mandating that 20 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2025, leading to a surge in renewable energy projects. While the popularity of wind and solar energy has increased globally as costs have fallen, Chile in particular has geography on its side. Atacama is the world’s driest desert and receives more solar radiation than almost any other spot on Earth. Strong winds blowing in from the Pacific coast and the Andes Mountains also make it ideal for wind power.

#lazy-img-329930653:beforepadding-top:66.72%;Antofagasta Plc this year signed an agreement with electricity producer Colbún SA to run its Zaldívar copper mine (foreground) solely on renewable energy—including wind, solar, and hydro—by 2020.
Antofagasta Plc this year signed an agreement with electricity producer Colbún SA to run its Zaldívar copper mine (foreground) solely on renewable energy—including wind, solar, and hydro—by 2020.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329930682:beforepadding-top:66.72%;Trucks carry ore from the bottom of Codelco’s Chuquimacata mine, the world’s largest open pit. Piles of tailings surround the site.
Trucks carry ore from the bottom of Codelco’s Chuquicamata mine, the world’s largest open pit. Piles of tailings surround the site.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings

Much of the new renewable capacity is being used by the mining industry. Mines represent about a third of Chile’s overall power usage, and electricity and fuel costs combined to make up 11 percent of total mining costs for the country’s 21 largest mines in 2017. With prices for solar energy falling more than 60 percent from 2014 through the first half of this year, many mining operations see investing in renewables as a way to lower their energy bills. Some, including state-owned copper producer Codelco, have invested in their own solar and wind projects. More commonly, producers have signed power-purchase agreements with third-party renewable energy companies, whose plants are sometimes hundreds of kilometers away.

#lazy-img-329930771:beforepadding-top:66.72%;New power lines run north from a solar project in Copiapó, delivering power to the grid.
New power lines run north from a solar project in Copiapó, delivering power to the grid.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings

Until November of last year, Chile had separate power grids for its northern and its more populous central regions, leaving most of the country’s population cut off from the renewable energy resources enjoyed by the mining companies. A massive government project to connect the two grids, begun in 2015, now gives broad access to Atacama’s wind and solar energy, more of which is being pumped into the grid as transmission lines are completed. By the end of 2017, Chile was producing 14 percent of its electricity from solar and wind sources and this year set a new target of 70 percent renewable by 2050. The massive solar arrays and scattered wind turbines built into the desert landscape are striking, surely, but with climate change looming, they’re also an investment in the nation’s future.

#lazy-img-329930787:beforepadding-top:66.72%;When it’s completed, EIG Global Energy Partners’ Cerro Dominador solar-thermal power plant will concentrate solar energy into a tank of molten salt, which will function as a thermal battery.
When it’s completed, EIG Global Energy Partners’ Cerro Dominador solar-thermal power plant will concentrate solar energy into a tank of molten salt, which will function as a thermal battery.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329930731:beforepadding-top:66.72%;Both the Carrera Pinto photovoltaic array (foreground) built by Enel Green Power SpA and the Luz del Norte array belonging to First Solar Inc. feed directly into Chile’s electrical grid.
Both the Carrera Pinto photovoltaic array (foreground) built by Enel Green Power SpA and the Luz del Norte array belonging to First Solar Inc. feed directly into Chile’s electrical grid.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329930833:beforepadding-top:66.72%;The Pampa Elvira solar-thermal array was built by Arcon-Sunmark and Energía Llaima in partnership with Codelco for its Gabriela Mistral mine. Solar radiation heats water used to create sheets of purified copper. Pampa Elvira supplies 80 percent of the energy needed for this process.
The Pampa Elvira solar-thermal array was built by Arcon-Sunmark and Energía Llaima in partnership with Codelco for its Gabriela Mistral mine. Solar radiation heats water used to create sheets of purified copper. Pampa Elvira supplies 80 percent of the energy needed for this process.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329931536:beforepadding-top:66.72%;Spain’s Acciona SA contracted with Google to supply 100 percent of its Santiago data center’s energy needs from the El Romero solar complex, nearly 600 kilometers (370 miles) to the north.
Spain’s Acciona SA contracted with Google to supply 100 percent of its Santiago data center’s energy needs from the El Romero solar complex, nearly 600 kilometers (370 miles) to the north.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329931559:beforepadding-top:66.72%;The Bolero Solar Photovoltaic Plant, 100 kilometers east of Antofagasta, is operated and maintained by EDF Renewables and owned by EFD EN Chile and Marubeni. Its power production goes into the northern grid.
The Bolero Solar Photovoltaic Plant, 100 kilometers east of Antofagasta, is operated and maintained by EDF Renewables and owned by EDF EN Chile SpA and Marubeni Corp. Its power production goes into the northern grid.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329931587:beforepadding-top:66.72%;Enel Green Power’s Sierra Gorda wind farm will supply 295 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid annually.
Enel Green Power’s Sierra Gorda wind farm will supply 295 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the grid annually.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329931606:beforepadding-top:66.75999999999999%;Plans for a new underground mine beneath Chuquimicata to access even more ore are underway.
Plans are under way for a new underground mine beneath Chuquicamata to access even more ore in the decades ahead.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329931653:beforepadding-top:66.72%;Wind farm Valle de los Vientos was connected to the northern grid in 2013 by Enel Green Power Chile with 45 wind turbines at two sites.
Valle de los Vientos wind farm, with 45 turbines at two sites, was connected to the northern grid by Enel Green Power in 2013.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings
#lazy-img-329931669:beforepadding-top:66.68%;Cerro Pabellón, a joint venture between Enel Green Power and Empress Nacional del Petróleo, is a geothermal facility 4,500 meters above sea level delivering electricity to northern Chile.
Cerro Pabellón, a joint venture between Enel Green Power and Empresa Nacional del Petróleo, is a geothermal facility 4,500 meters above sea level delivering electricity to northern Chile.
Photographer: Jamey Stillings

 

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