“El Norte tiene el mejor potencial solar en el mundo. ¡En el mundo! ¿Pues por qué quieren represas en el Sur? Es una locura. Absolutamente una locura.”
“The North of Chile has the best solar potential in the world. In the world! So why do they want dams in the South? It’s crazy. Absolutely crazy.”
A taxi driver told me these words in May 2011 on the way from the Arturo Merino Benitez Airport to my hotel in Santiago, and they have stuck with me ever since. Just days earlier, Chile’s authorities had approved the massive $10 billion HidroAysén project – five dams proposed on two of Patagonia’s wildest rivers – despite the woeful quality of the project’s environmental impact assessment and the fact that the large majority of Chileans were against the dams. The approval immediately launched demonstrations throughout the country – the largest protests the country had seen in over 20 years.
I was not, in fact, in town to participate in the protests. I had come to Chile to present the results of a new study from NRDC about the levelized cost of energy in Chile.* NRDC had commissioned the analysis to test the argument I had heard many times in Chile: that renewables were too expensive to be developed at scale. The results of the study put that argument to rest: it showed that Chile’s biomass, biogas, geothermal, mini-hydro, and wind power options were already cost-competitive with the conventional energies – coal, diesel, and large hydro – in 2011. It also proved that solar would also be cost-competitive in a matter of years.