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Chile’s $1.1bn Solar Power Tower

solar power tower

The huge Atacama 1 Concentrated Solar Power plant is currently under construction in the Atacama desert, and is bringing Chile’s solar power target to new heights.

The tower is the second tallest building in Chile, and is a prominent symbol of the country’s transition to clean, renewable energy sources from dirty fossil fuels.

The impressive solar power tower structure will harvest energy from the sun with a huge field of giant mirrors stretched across the ground below for up to a kilometre. When completed, Chile will be left with a solar plant that can generate 110 megawatts of power, 24 hours a day.

The $1.1bn solar power project illustrates just how much renewable technology has advanced, however it has now been thrown into doubt because of the owner (Abengoa)’s financial issues, reminding us that the energy shift is highly dependent on financials.

Although the US is home to biggest concentrated solar power plants, the Atacama 1 Concentrated Solar Power plant is said to be the largest to utilize a single tower and salt mined locally to drive turbines and for thermal storage.

According to the company, Atacama’s kilowatt hours of solar power per square metre is over 30 per cent higher that anywhere else they operate.

Abengoa’s business development manager, Roberto Herrera, says that one of their selling points is that they utilize local resources which provide a stable supply.

“This plant is not dependent on imports so there is more security against global price fluctuations and international crises,” he said.

“The marginal costs in Chile are the lowest of any of our power plants … When it is built, we’ll only need 50 maintenance staff … The cost is already at the same level as gas – $120 per megawatt hour – and the idea is for it to fall as the technology improves.”

Visitors to the plant must be cautious of the dangerously strong sun; industrial-strength sunscreen, dark glasses, a helmet, harness and boots are all essential.

In addition to the concentrated solar power, the Atacama solar power tower has solar photovoltaic generation up to 100MW. There is also a production line where 36 heliostats are turned out by assembly workers each day, which are then put on trucks and transported to the mirror field.

Abengoa tower may be put on hold

Mr Herrera says that South Africa and Chile are the most promising locations for Abengoa’s solar power division growth, however their big plans may soon have to be put on hold.

The company is drowning in debt, and filed for preliminary creditor protection after an earlier over-leveraged global expansion.

Chile has no direct subsidies, so Abengoa executives were wary of the stretch before restructuring was even announced.

Abengoa Solar Chile’s general directo Ivan Araneda said, “This will be an iconic project that reduces 840,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year”

“But we have to compete with conventional generation, so we have the challenge of reducing costs to be more competitive. The financing for these facilities is a challenge,” Mr Araneda stated.

While the company tries to get organised, the future of the plant is in doubt. However, the solar power tower is not the only solar player in the Atacama. Over the last eight years, wind, solar and biomass amongst the country’s energy mix has risen from one to 11 per cent, and continues to grow by around 600MW each year.

The government is confident that will achieve their target of 20 per cent non-conventional renewable energy by 2025.

Photo courtesy of Worklife Siemens

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