Chile's Hydropower Dilemma, and Why You Need to Know About It

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

Chile is experiencing political uproar over HidroAysén, a proposed $8 billion mega-hydroelectric dam project that would provide the country’s central electrical grid with 2,750 megawatts of power over the the next 12 years.

Chile’s central grid provides 90% of the country’s citizens with power. Currently, hydropower accounts for only 40% of the country’s energy. These statistics become particularly interesting when you consider the fact that Chile does not have any domestic oil or natural gas reserves.

Chile, the world’s number one copper producer, clearly needs to ramp up its energy production, and the HidroAysén project can help it to do just that. Yet 74% of Chileans don’t want this dam project to move forward.

The HidroAysén plan would build five dams, significantly altering 14,000 acres of the pristine Patagonian region, a diverse ecosystem shared by Chile and Argentina that's known for its glaciers, islands, mountains, and fjords. Home to the Magellan Straits, the Chilean section of Patagonia includes six national parks, 11 national reserves, and 32 private protected areas, all of which would be affected by the HidroAysén facilities.

In addition to the dams, the project would require the construction of a transmission line spanning almost 1,200 miles — making it the largest in the world — as well as access roads through Andean glaciers. Furthermore, the project could flood the Pascua and Baker Rivers, across which the dams would be built.

Flooding could lead to ecological damage in Chile, but the hydroelectric plant could have environmental consequences for the rest of the world, as well. Although hydropower is a renewable energy source, hydroelectric dams can produce harmful carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

In Brazil, an Amazonian dam was calculated to produce greater greenhouse gas emissions than the entire city of São Paulo, which is one of the 10 most populous metropolises in the world. The dam’s location in the world’s largest tropical rainforest contributes to the problem: as vegetation rots under the water, it produces methane, which is 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. According to the International Energy Agency, Brazil’s carbon footprint is currently the third highest in the world.

Philip Fearnside, a professor at Brazil’s National Institute for Amazon Research, says that hydropower’s short-term benefits do not outweigh its detrimental effects on the environment. He emphasizes that the world needs to focus on reducing its emissions nownot later, in order to prevent global warming from accelerating.

Worldwide, hydropower accounts for more renewable electricity production than geothermal, solar, and wind energy, combined. The four largest power plants in the world — located in China, Venezuela, Brazil, and the on the border between Brazil and Paraguay — are all hydroelectric.

Chile’s right-wing president, Sebastian Piñera, leaves office next year. HidroAysén’s primary corporate owner, the utility company Colbún, has suspended work on HidroAysén until then due to the public’s heated opposition to the project.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is currently leading in presidential polls. She is firmly opposed to the HidroAysén project, saying last month that it, “is not viable.”

The executive vice president of HidroAysén, Daniel Fernández, has said that the project is urgent and needs to begin, regardless of which government it happens under. He alluded to a "time limit" that needs to be met, saying that if the project is delayed for too long, it will be, "an abysmal sign for the energy market and investment market in general."

But has Fernández fully considered the heavy environmental and social risks involved with a project of this size and scope? Maybe if the environmental risks were given a face, he could better understand.

Just look at this pudu, aka, the world’s smallest deer. Pudus are just one of the 13 endangered species residing in Patagonia that could face further endangerment, or extinction, if HydroAysén comes to be.

All right, maybe higher greenhouse gas rates are a more disconcerting side effect. In any case, there are enough arguments against this project to merit the reconsideration of hydroelectric power as a whole — its benefits, its risks, and its overall environmental implications for our world.

Check out Ríos Libres for more information about protecting the Patagonian region.

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