Why Chile’s copper mining industry converted to solar energy

Hugh Small’s presentation to the LSE Student Union Sustainable Futures Society ‘Solving Climate Change’ panel, 24 February 2015

Old energy technology is not only damaging Earth, it is also the cause of social inequality and industrial inefficiency. A powerful energy cartel wants to keep it that way, but climate change campaigners are defeating them. I want to illustrate this by making two points:

  • Exploitation of ‘fuelled’ energy causes social, industrial, and environmental damage because fuel is unshared wealth. Fuelled energy is locked up in ‘owned’ commodities – mainly fossil fuels but also hydro-storage and nuclear installations – which are monopolised by cartels ;
  • Climate change campaigners are helping to repair social and industrial damage as well as environmental harm by promoting renewables, which do not use fuel and so cannot be monopolised; they are a ‘new commons’.

I’d like to illustrate these points with a topical example from Chile, in South America, where I lived for a short time and where one of the world’s most energy-intensive industries has converted to solar generation.

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You’re looking at a picture of the edge of the Northern Ice Field in Patagonia, the remotest corner of Chile. I took the picture forty years ago almost to the day. There is a dirt road into the area now, but it is still way off the tourist trail. Back in February 1975 I could only get there in a Second World War Dakota cargo plane that could land on terrain like that. It didn’t land in this spot – I took the photo two days into my 100-mile walk to the Pacific. The view is of the junction of the Baker and La Colonia rivers

In 2006, when I went back after 31 years, I found that the wilderness had been broken into parcels, each trussed up in barbed wire.  There were helicopters clattering overhead, surveying and sampling the rocks. General Pinochet’s former military government had sold the water rights in perpetuity to European companies who were going to flood this valley and several others to generate electricity for the rest of the country. To get the electricity to where they needed it they would build a transmission line 2000 km long which would go through virgin forest to create the longest clear-cut on the planet. The barbed wire was because the government had sold the wilderness to speculators for USD 25 a hectare.

I found that local environmentalists were mobilising against the destruction of the wilderness. They were demanding that the government consider renewables instead, which seemed futuristic at the time. The protestors delayed the dams for eight years. Finally in the middle of last year the new President cancelled the whole hydroelectric project on environmental grounds. There was now strong pressure to end reliance on imported fossil fuels; the question was: would Chile fill the energy gap by going nuclear? Just two months ago the answer became clear: Chile’s National Energy Commission ordered the first 350 Mw of solar generating capacity (equivalent to about one-third of a typical operating nuclear reactor), unsubsidised, to be connected to the grid before the first dam would have been operational even had there been no eight-year delay. The mining companies are also ordering their own off-grid solar plants, typically 100 Mw each, which make industrial quantities of electricity 10-15% cheaper than fossil, nuclear, or hydro, and without destroying the land. This rapid advance of solar photovoltaic technology reminds me of the development of fibre-optic telecommunications, which went from interesting scientific curiosity to technology of choice in a decade.

But here’s the thing about renewables. Renewables are not just renewable. Renewable energy also can’t be OWNED like fuel. Use it or lose it! The only practicable way to capture and mix it to create a constant supply is in small household-size batteries like those for electrical vehicles. Renewables can’t be amassed, hidden, diverted by corrupt politicians, speculated, monopolised, or used as a geopolitical instrument of power. And whose oil is it anyway? Why should oil-depleted Egypt’s 80m people have GDP per capita one fifth of that of next door Saudi Arabia? Egypt has now decided to go solar and stop begging fuel from its selfish neighbours. That’s the geopolitical impact of renewables: less inequality between countries, less corruption.

The social benefit was already visible on a small scale in 2006 in the homesteaders’ cabins in Patagonia, which each had a solar panel on the roof for charging the radio battery. It didn’t take a college education to work out that these little electronic gadgets were the future. Everyone can see that electronic equipment is continuously falling in price and increasing its performance. It is a sort of mindfulness, an attention to what you can see and feel, which allows people to choose without properly articulating their reasons. One of the strongest unarticulated human feelings is a desire to restore the conditions under which we evolved, when there was no agriculture and therefore no stored produce to feed a hierarchy of priests or a standing army to enforce inequality. That, I think, is why many environmentalists really want fossil fuels to stay in the ground, even when they don’t say so; it’s not so that our descendants will be able to use them, but because they are an instrument of inequality.

That solar panel on the cabin roof creates ‘economic growth’, i.e. wealth. It will show up as increased GDP because it gives the homesteader additional spending power. That is wealth that doesn’t need to ‘trickle down’ through layers of hierarchy. That micro-generated version of economic growth goes straight into the family biscuit tin. When people complain that renewables ‘can’t be stored’ they mean they can’t be fenced in. That means they are a new commons. A new energy commons? In the words of Naomi Klein, this changes everything.

The news from Chile about the reversal of General Pinochet’s legacy teaches us that the climate change activists are succeeding in reforming the world’s economy. It shows how environmentalists, by blocking destructive stored fuel energy projects, are protecting the environment and preventing huge industrial concerns from locking out renewables for years to come. That we knew. But it also shows that renewable energy will reduce inequality between countries and will destroy the power that comes from ownership of energy resources by the few.

Click to see photo essay of  Patagonia in 1975
(pages originally set up to publicise the threat from the hydroelectric scheme)

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