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Southern Chile supports tidal energy developments

Community leaders in the southern coastal city of Puerto Montt this week proposed that the nation take a serious look at harnessing the energy created by tide action along Chile’s vast Pacific Ocean coast line to meet its current and future energy needs.

Leaders and a local editorial page called for construction of a bridge across the Chacao channel to the nearby island of Chiloé, to be built on top of 200 tide-powered generators.

The results, they say, will be 3,000 MW of power (more than HidroAysén’s 2,750 MW) at significantly less financial and environmental cost. The projected cost of the energy-producing bridge is estimated at US$65 million, with a two-year completion date.

A bridge to Chiloé harnessing tidal power was first proposed in April 2005 by architect René Fischmann and has since been kept alive by a local organization called the Centro para el Progreso, led by Mariano Gonzalez.

HidroAysén’s cost is currently estimated at US$7.5 billion and would take an estimated eight to 12 years to build. It involves the construction of five dams on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in southern Chile and a 2,000 km-long power line from the dams to central Chile.

Gonzalez says the Centro para el Progreso hasn’t taken an official position on HidroAysén, but that he personally has many concerns. “I really don’t like it,” he says. “I understand that Chile needs to make use of its abundant water resources, but we have to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy our most precious asset – our wonderful environment.”

An editorial in the local El Llanquihue newspaper (part of the Edwards media group) strongly supported the tidal energy project and urged national leaders to seriously consider it. El Llanquihue noted the project would not only provide clean, environmentally harmless renewable energy, but would also create numerous jobs in a part of the country that suffered terrible unemployment when the salmon industry collapsed three years ago after fish farms were infected with the ISA virus.

An International Development Bank (IDB) study conducted in 2009 confirmed Chile’s tidal wave potential (ST, July 30, 2009). It found Chile has “unique global potential” for this renewable energy source.

According to the report, published by Chile’s National Energy Commission (CNE), even if only 10 percent of this resource is harnessed, it would exceed the existing installed capacity of Chile’s central electricity grid, or SIC.

Compiled at the behest of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), this report was based on investigations undertaken by Garrad Hassan, the world’s leading renewable energy consultant. In collaboration with Chile’s environmental groups, maritime authorities and navy, the Hassan group identified potential sites for the development of this non-conventional renewable energy source, including such major ports as San Antonio, Puerto Montt and San Vicente, and the Corcovado Gulf and the Magellan Straits.

The IDB report suggested that in tidal energy “Chile could play a decisive role and profit from early active participation by claiming international leadership in the field.”

Although there are various prototypes for underwater turbines, capturing tidal energy is still not greatly developed. Questions about the best materials and the most efficient sizes and shapes for the turbines remain unanswered.

Still, Chilean researchers have already measured the potential energy created by the Chacao Channel in a project funded by the Fund for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FONDEF) (ST, Nov. 10, 2010).

The FONDEF project mapped the sea floor in the channel to help determine the best placement for the turbines. Optimal placement would ensure that the turbines are not only productive, but also do not disrupt ship navigation paths or damage marine life.

Rodrigo Cienfuegos, the project’s director and an engineer at Universidad Católica, said he imagined the turbines extending throughout much of the canal. “It will be like a wind farm, but underwater,” he said.

Water currents are much more predictable than wind, which makes tidal and wave power a much safer bet as a source of renewable energy.

Small fish are unlikely to be adversely affected by the enormous structures, because the machines operate much more slowly than wind turbines, allowing fish to slip between their blades. Nonetheless, the project aims to avoid fish migration routes and the feeding grounds of dolphins and whales.

Juan Carlos Castillo, an ecologist at Universidad Católica who studies small marine organisms, said that in southern Chile the phenomenon of small mollusks that adhere to any submerged structure was widespread. The organisms reproduce rapidly and need to be avoided.

“Accumulation [of these organisms] on the turbines can impede their function, or even break them,” Castillo said.

Available solutions include using a special paint currently used on the bottoms of boats to discourage organisms from attaching themselves. There is also the possibility that the turbines could emit electric shocks, achieving the same end.
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