Chile approved on Monday the construction of a hydroelectric project that would flood Patagonian valleys and become the country’s biggest power generator, sparking violent protests.
Police fired water cannons at demonstrators outside the building in the city of Coyhaique where 11 of the 12 members of an environment commission voted in favour of the HidroAysen project that Santiago-based Empresa Nacional de Electricidad SA and Colbun SA (COLBUN) want to build.
HidroAysen’s five dams would flood nearly 6,000 hectares of land and require a 1,900 kilometre transmission line to feed the central grid that supplies Santiago and surrounding cities as well as copper mines owned by Codelco and Anglo American Plc. The government of President Sebastian Piñera says Chile needs more hydroelectric and coal- fired plants to meet demand that will double in the next decade and reduce power costs that are the highest in the region.
“We have to get that energy somewhere, independent of what the project is, because energy today is twice as expensive as in other Latin American countries,” Ena Von Baer, the government’s spokeswoman, told reporters in Santiago. “We want to be a developed country and to do that we need energy, especially cheap energy for the poor.”
With capacity to produce 2,750 megawatts, about 35% of the country’s current power consumption, the project would dwarf Ralco, Chile’s biggest hydro-generator at about 760 megawatts, on the Bio Bio River.
The approval was for the dams. HidroAysen plans to seek approval for the transmission line later this year. The project would require a total investment of at least 7 billion US dollars.
Hundreds of protesters blocked the entrance to the room where the government’s regional representative Pilar Cuevas and other officials sat after the meeting. A police officer and at least one other person were injured by stones thrown by demonstrators, while 22 people were arrested, Aysen Governor Nestor Mera told reporters. In Santiago dozens of protesters gathered at the Plaza Italia square in the downtown area.
Non-profit group Patagonia Without Dams has erected billboards showing electricity pylons blotting a landscape of rugged snow-topped mountains and green fields sandwiched between Argentina and Pacific fjords.
“Here we don’t need all this energy that they are going to generate,” said Gloria Hernandez, an adviser to the Catholic Church in Aysen. “They are going to deliver it to the mining companies in the north.”
HidroAysen runs television adverts emphasizing the need for new energy sources by showing a floodlit stadium plunged into darkness during a soccer match. The project is clean, renewable and will bring jobs to the region, Michel Moure, HidroAysen’s head of operations, said.
So far this year, authorities have granted Santiago-based Empresas Copec SA (COPEC) a permit to build a 500 million US dollars coal mine on a Patagonian island close to Punta Arenas and approved Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista’s plans for a 4.4 billion USD thermoelectric plant.