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Pascua River in Patagonia, Chile (Photograph by Gary Hughes/International Rivers)

A Battle Over the Quest to Tap Patagonia’s Rivers for Energy

For almost six years, a dam project in the Aysén region of Chile (map) has provoked a battle over whether it is the best way to help meet the country’s growing energy demand. The HidroAysén would construct five hydroelectric dams in the Baker and Pascua rivers, delivering an estimated 2,750 megawatts of power to a grid that serves about 90 percent of the Chilean population.

The Chilean Environmental Commission approved the construction last May, but environmental groups including Patagonia Without Dams have sued to stop the project. A Supreme Court ruling on that case was expected this month, but has not yet been delivered. Late last month, a congressional report said there had been irregularities and flaws in the government’s environmental approval process for the dams.

HidroAysén, which is backed by the Chilean companies Endesa and Colbun, is certainly not the only controversial energy project in Chile. The company Xstrata has plans to construct three dams in the same region, with the first now up for government approval. Plans for a coal-fired power plant north of Santiago were approved last year amid court battles and environmental opposition. And a proposed wind farm on the southwestern coast has been criticized over concerns about its potential impact on the blue whale and other marine species in the region.

Chile’s need to diversify its energy mix has become particularly apparent in recent years. The government estimates that demand will grow 6 to 7 percent per year up to 2020. The country lost its primary supply of natural gas about five years ago when Argentina stopped its exports. Hydroelectric power has proven vulnerable to drought, forcing the country to rely more on imported fossil fuel. Despite this, President Sebastian Piñera recently promised to boost hydroelectric’s share of power generation from 34 percent to at least 45 percent in the next two decades.

Opponents of the 12-year-long HidroAysén project say it will result in habitat loss for numerous species of flora and fauna, hurt Patagonia’s tourism industry, and harm nearby communities. Aside from the dams themselves, the accompanying transmission lines will run 1,912 kilometers (nearly 1,200 miles) through at least 800 private properties, causing additional concern about the impact.

Most of the demand for the energy that HidroAysén would deliver comes not from consumers but from the nation’s copper mines, a point that critics have used to argue against the project. Antonio Horvath, a senator from Aysén, has said that the project “is not energy for Chile, it is for the mining companies of the north.”

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