Facing persistent drought, Chile drafts hydroelectric contingency plan

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Chile’s government has presented a contingency plan to combat the consequences of an unprecedented drought on its 6.27-GW hydroelectric generation park, according to BNamericas.

Energy minister Juan Carlos Jobet confirmed to the lower chamber’s energy and mining committee that the country would have to recall a retired coal-fired unit, AES Andes’ Ventanas 1, now in strategic reserve, to cover the hydroelectric deficit. The energy ministry will also issue a decree outlining key measures, Jobet said, including further limiting water usage by the energy sector to avoid adverse effects on other industries and the population, asking grid coordinator CEN to change the system’s maintenance calendar to avoid several units going out of service at the same time, and monitoring the fuel availability of thermal units to ensure they are ready to dispatch on short notice.

Jobet also said the ministry would do everything in its power to accelerate the rapid commercial operation of renewable generators in the later stages of development and in the testing phase. “There are some projects that are ready in operative terms to inject power into the system but are not doing so because they have pending formal procedures they must clear first,” he said. “Our decree will make it easier for those projects to connect to the grid despite these formalities, which will be cleared soon after.”

The ministry said that to publish the decree it must first receive a report from energy commission CNE, which is in the works.

According to trade group Generadoras de Chile, hydroelectric generation in 2021 has been 16.3% lower than that of 2019, which was considered a drought year, and 0.4% lower than last year. “Volumes stored as of June in the country’s main dams totaled 2,625 Hm3 [million cubic meters], which is 5% higher than the previous month,” the trade group said. “Storage is still very low, about 63% of the resources that normally would have accumulated up to this date. However, this water volume is 10% greater than that stored in 2020 during the same period.”

According to Jobet, Chile saw two years of comparable drought to this year in 1968 and 1998, at a time when the grid was much more dependent on hydropower. On both occasions, electric power had to be rationed. According to the ministry’s estimations, it is unlikely rationing will be necessary this year.

Jobet said the situation only affects Chile’s main SEN grid and not the smaller grids that power the country’s isolated southern regions.

Hydroelectric generation has not grown significantly in Chile over the past 20 years, in part because few new projects have been built but also because hydrological conditions have steadily deteriorated. Hydro’s participation in the power matrix dropped from about 50% in the 1990 to 2010 period to 27% in 2020.

A recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that, given the world’s current emissions trajectory, Chile’s central and northern regions could experience a retreating coastline, a fall in rainfall and a greater severity and frequency of droughts. This is compounded by the loss of volume and number of glaciers in the Andes mountains, which could damage the flow in rivers across the country.

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