Last week in my series on clean energy in Chile, we reviewed Chile’s competitive advantage in wind energy. This week, we will continue to explore the various renewable energy sources available in Chile by examining solar energy. Solar energy is the most widely available energy on Earth. It is produced by the sun and is available in radiant heat and light forms. Currently, humans harness only an infantesimile amount of the total solar energy available. Technology to capture and use solar energy can be categorized as either active solar or passive solar. This broad characterization depends largely on the manner in which the technology captures, converts, and distributes the energy. When we discuss solar energy here, we are talking about active solar. An example of passive solar would be a terrarium.
The most commonly used technology for this capture and conversion is the photovoltaic. The photovoltaic converts radiant light from the sun into direct current electricity. It is commonly made of a few materials: monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, microcrystalline silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium selenide.The fixed costs of setting up a plant do not make it economically feasible to operate only a few cells. Therefore, cells are grouped together in photovoltaic panels or modules and arranged in arrays. A typical solar energy plant will have a few hundred thousand cells and hundreds of modules (1) (2).
The electricity output of such a plant is dependent on a few factors. Not all of these factors are under control by the plant developer/operator. The first factor is the conversion ratio of the cells; that is, a measurement of how effective the panels are at converting the solar radiation into direct current. The industry average conversion ratio is between 12 – 14%, but some panels can convert as much as 20 – 23%. The second factor, which is arguably more important than the first, is the average solar irradiance of the land the plant inhabits. This operator has no control over how much sun (and the intensity of the solar radiation) that their plant is receiving once it is built. So, as the saying goes, “Location, location, location!”
Take a look at the chart below. As Wikipedia notes, “Average solar irradiance, watts per square metre. Note that this is for a horizontal surface, whereas solar panels are normally mounted at an angle and receive more energy per unit area. The small black dots show the area of solar panels needed to generate all of the world’s energy using 8% efficient photovoltaics.”
The southwest most black dot is the desert of Atacama, in the North of Chile. This dot means that the Atacama desert in Chile receives one of the highest concentrations of solar energy in the world, measured in watts per square meter. In English, this means that the same solar plant built here will produce more direct current electricity than almost any other place in the world. Currently, this desert is extremely underutilized. There are a few mining companies in the area, but for the most part, the vast stretch of arid land is barren and waiting development. The desert is one of the hottest, driest places on Earth and provides Chile with an extreme competitive advantage for the conversion of solar radiation into direct electrical current.
Currently, the first solar energy plant, Calama Solar I, is being developed in the Calama region of the Atacama desert in Northern Chile. The plant has an expected output of 10 MW and cost of $40 million S. The project is spearheaded by Solarpack, and solar energy company already running four plants in Spain: “Overseeing an investment of $40 million, Solarpack will be responsible for manufacturing, assembling, operating and maintaining the plant, which will be connected to Chile’s medium-voltage Interconected System of Norte Grande (SING) grid. In this region, heavy industry – particularly copper mining – accounts for 80 to 90 percent of electricity consumption, the main motivation for setting up the plant. Nevertheless, the electricity generated is not intended solely for industrial use. »Part of the output will be consumed by the local population,« says Burgos Galíndez. The Solarpack executive adds that if the initiative progresses as envisaged, the company will double the facility’s capacity to 20 MW in the near future, »possibly as early as 2010.« Provided that everything goes to plan, within 3 years investment could rise to as much as $250 million with installed capacity reaching 60 MW, the equivalent to six Calama I-size plants” (2).
My expectation is that this plate of projects will only be tiny in comparison to what will come as the costs of solar-generated electricity decrease and the demand for renewable energy rises. And since Chile has such a clear competitive advantage in its Atacama desert, I think that it will become a major player in the solar energy market.