As of the last two decades, our country’s population has grown considerably. According to statistics drawn from the 2002 Census, Chile has a population of over 15.7 million inhabitants, 85% of which live in urban areas.
Our country also enjoys great economic and political stability compared to the South American context. This way, in the last few years, we have enjoyed great economic growth, determined by variables such as low debt, important reserve funds and huge foreign investment.
Despite this noteworthy development, Chile has scarce oil reserves and the same goes for natural gas, both being the two most used primary energy sources, be it in homes, businesses or institutions. Due to this, at the moment we depend on our more immediate providers, reason for which encouraging the use of other cleaner energy sources is fundamental.
Chile supplies it energy needs mainly through three sources: electricity, natural gas and oil. Although hydroelectric power plants have managed to satisfy our consumption so far, the need for new supplying plants has already been raised. Regarding natural gas and oil, resources become scarce on occasions because we mostly depend of supplier countries. We import a great deal of the natural gas and oil we consume from Argentina.
Nations as faraway as Nigeria and Angola also join the oil supply, providing nearly 85% of the oil we need.
Electric energy produced in Chile mainly comes from thermo and hydroelectric power plants. The supply for industrial, commercial and residential consumption comes from them through complex systems of generation and distribution. In order to do so, generating plants are grouped into four stages.
The first of them, dubbed Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande (SING) (Interconnected System of the Greater North), stretches from the region of Arica and Parinacota to the region of Antofagasta, spanning a surface that equals 24.5% of the continental national territory. It is an area characterized for having scarce hydro resources for the generation of electric energy, so its plants are called thermoelectric, meaning the ones that use coal, diesel fuel and natural gas for their operation.
The longest stretch is located next, dubbed Sistema Interconectado Central (CIC) (Central Interconnected System). It stretches from Taltal to Chiloe, supplying electricity to over 90% of the population. The two last systems supply the far south of Chile and correspond to Aysen and Magallanes. Each of them tends to the needs of its respective region; while Aysen supplies energy to nearly 20,000 people, the Magallanes system reaches 46,000 users.
The debate on nuclear energy
Nuclear energy is considered one of the most powerful sources known to this day. Uranium produces, for each fissioned kilo, the same energy that is produced by the combustion of 2 million kilos of oil. This index also has a highly important characteristic: nuclear energy is one of the cleanest when it comes to atmospheric emissions because it doesn’t generate greenhouse gasses or have a great impact on the zone it is located in, unlike hydroelectric power plants.
This way, nuclear energy, which at a worldwide level constitutes an important energy source, especially in developed countries like France or Japan, is proposed as an alternative to traditional sources.
In the last few years, our country has showed its interest in studying its possible implementation. However, these projects have not been exempt of controversy.
This happens because there are many suspicions regarding projects of this scale. This way, even though nuclear energy is clean when it comes to the gasses it generates, it is also true that it produces a significant amount of radioactive waste that remains of the planet surface for over 100 thousand years, which are highly dangerous and must be carefully stored until they decrease over the years. Therefore, this would involve a great investment regarding plant safety and the training of their personnel.
Another controversial point to take into consideration is the location of the plant. Our country is located right in the middle of two tectonic plates, which makes it quite vulnerable to tremors and earthquakes. Any nuclear construction must consider this important variable because any fracture, minimal as it may be, can cause a leak of radioactive material, putting the entire population in jeopardy (emissions would not affect the closer places, but would cover great distances, affecting every living being in its path and for quite a while).
In Chile, the demand for energy increases dramatically and the dependency we have on supplier countries does not go down. Due to this, the quick introduction and use of alternative energy sources has become necessary, benefiting not only our economy, but also the environment.
The north of our country offers two important sources for the generation of energy: geothermal and solar resources, which have already enabled the generation of some relevant projects. While the possibilities of having a geothermal power plant up north are only projected for 2010, solar energy is already used in urban and rural areas to meet industrial as well as residential energy requirements.
Eolic energy is also one of the alternatives that is currently being used and is projected to be expanded throughout the country. In the region of Aysen there are three aerogenerators that belong to the “Alto Baguales” project. Each of them generates approximately 660 KW, integrating itself to the supply provided by the Electrical System of Aysen. Some eolic projects have also been developed in some rural locations of our country, the most relevant being the Tac Island Eolic Generation Pilot Project, in the Chiloe archipelago (region of Los Lagos), which benefits 79 families of the area.
Regarding biofuels, biogas is extracted from dumps to be used as a component of city gas in the regions of Valparaiso and Metropolitana. The use of biodiesel and ethanol is one of the closest options because the government is putting together the regulatory framework for future projects. Among the crops considered for the production of ethanol are wheat, maize and beetroot, while for biodiesel, plantations are planned for rapeseeds and sunflowers, mainly located in the south-central area of our country.