Driven by a constantly expanding need for electricity, Chile is considering building seven new dams and a transmission line through its southern wilderness. This isolated land of condors and monkey puzzle trees is home to the third largest reserve of frozen freshwater in the world—the Southern Ice Field. Critics say the environmental risks have not been fully examined, and the risk to southern Chile's unique ecosystems is unacceptably high. Proponents of the dam project argue that hydroelectricity is a clean source of energy, just waiting to be tapped. Chile needs the 3500 MW/yr of power to meet its development goals and lacks indigenous oil or coal reserves. Moreover, the electricity from the dams would displace dirty generation, greatly reducing Chile's greenhouse gas emissions. Give all the benefits, why are so many people, within Chile and without, so opposed to the dams—opposed to the point of preferring new coal plants?
The HidroAysen project is the most ambitious dam proposal in the history of Chile. Along with proposing the construction of 5 dams on two of Patagonia's most pristine rivers, the Pascua and Baker, it plans on building a 2000 km high-voltage transmission line North to Santiago, creating the world's longest clear-cut. The proposed dams would flood rare temperate rainforests and some of Patagonia's best ranching lands. The rainforest areas that the dams and transmission lines would eliminate do not exist anywhere else on the planet—more than 50% of the plant species found in southern Chile are found nowhere else. Along with altering Chile's environment from the south to the Central Valley, the project threatens future damming of other rivers in Patagonia. Activists fear, that once the transmission line is in place, rivers such as the Puelo, Yelcho, Palena and the Futaleufu will also be scheduled for damming.
With virtually no coal, oil or natural gas, Chile imports more than 95% of its fossil fuels. Half the country's electricity comes from plants fueled by Argentinean oil or gas and Columbian coal. The other half comes from existing hydropower schemes, many of them in the central zone around the Biobío River. As a result, Chile has the most expensive energy in South America. Add to that often contentious relationships with neighboring countries and Chile's energy position is a disaster waiting to happen.
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