By Malee Oot June 14, 2014
Chile’s Atacama Desert, an area with exceptionally few clouds, will soon be home to South America’s first and largest solar thermal plant with storage. Plans for the Cerro Dominador plant were announced publicly in May when the Seville, Spain-located sustainable technology developer Abengoa received approval from the Chilean Environmental Service for a $1 billion contract to build the plant. The plant is expected to be operational in 2017, according to Abengoa.
Cerro Dominador will also be the first base load power plant in Latin America to utilize renewable energy; the use of solar thermal technology will allow for the uninterrupted provision of electricity around the clock. Electric energy generated by solar thermal technology utilizes different approach to harnessing sunlight than photovoltaic (PV) solar systems. While photovoltaic systems directly convert radiation from the sun into energy, solar thermal technology uses a series of mirrors to focus light from the sun on a specific point, which creates heat used to run a heat engine, which then turns a generator to produce electricity.
The plant will use 10,000 heliostats, or mirrors mounted on a flat surface used to track the sun and concentrate solar radiation on a receiver located on a 250-meter tower. This concentrated heat from the sun is then transferred to molten salt to produce steam used to run a turbine to generate electricity. The 110 megawatt (MW) plant will prevent 643,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions each year, according to Abengoa.
Development of the Cerro Dominador plant is part of Chile’s ambitious national renewable energy program. In May, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet released the country’s new energy agenda, emphasizing comprehensive energy efficiency and more local energy sources, building on a law passed last year in Chile mandating 20% of the country’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2025.
Although the mining industry in Chile is still prominent, and coal continues to provide a significant portion of country’s electricity, with about 400 MW of solar technology under construction around the country, Chile is also Latin America’s leading market for solar, according to The Guardian.
Cerro Dominador is also expected to provide an economic boost to the commune of Maria Elena, in the Antofagasta region of northern Chile where the plant will be located. Construction of the plant is expected to create 700 jobs and require nearly 2,000 builders. Once the plant is operational, there are expected to be 50 permanent jobs created by the plant, with significantly more indirectly related to the plant created in the area.