Chile’s Energy Transformation Is Powered by Wind, Sun and Volcanoes

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Wind turbines in the Atacama Desert and other turbines along Chile’s 2,653-mile coast contribute to power to national grid. CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

CERRO PABELLÓN, Chile — It looks and functions much like an oil drilling rig. As it happens, several of the men in thick blue overalls and white helmets who operate the hulking machine once made a living pumping crude.

But now they are surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes, laboring to breathe up here at 14,760 feet above sea level as they draw steam from the earth at South America’s first geothermal energy plant.

With the ability to power roughly 165,000 homes, the new plant is yet another step in Chile’s clean energy transformation. This nation’s rapidly expanding clean energy grid, which includes vast solar fields and wind farms, is one of the most ambitious in a region that is decisively moving beyond fossil fuels.

Latin America already has the world’s cleanest electricity, having long relied on dams to generate a large share of its energy needs, according to the World Bank.

But even beyond those big hydropower projects, investment in renewable energy in Latin America has increased 11-fold since 2004, nearly double the global rate, according to a 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization. Chile, Mexico and Brazil are now among the top 10 renewable energy markets in the world.

So as Latin America embraces greener energy sources, government officials and industry executives in the region have expressed a sense of confusion, even bewilderment, with the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the climate change commitments contained in the Paris Agreement, declare an end to the “war on coal” and take aim at American environmental regulations.

“It’s irrational, like someone has been asleep for 10 years and refuses to wake up,” said James Lee Stancampiano, the head of business development for South America at Enel Green Power, an Italian company that has played a leading role in overhauling Chile’s energy sector. “We see renewables as a train that nobody can stop.”

Even Argentina, something of a laggard in Latin America when it comes to clean energy, last year invited foreign companies to bid on renewable energy projects and declared 2017 to be the “year of renewables,” setting a goal of relying on clean sources for 20 percent of its electricity needs by 2025, up from the current 2 percent.

Mexico is striving to rely on clean energy for 35 percent of its electricity demand by 2024, up from about 21 percent today. By 2050, it hopes to have a grid that runs on at least 50 percent clean energy.

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Vicuñas and flamingos on the edge of a lake in the Antofagasta Region in northern Chile. The geography of Chile is favorable for the creation of renewable energy. CreditMeridith Kohut for The New York Times

Chilean officials have an even more ambitious projection, saying the country is on track to rely on clean sources for 90 percent of its electricity needs by 2050, up from the current 45 percent.

The country’s expanding green energy infrastructure has significantly reduced the cost of producing electricity here, helping to turn a nation once dependent on energy imports into a renewables powerhouse with the potential to help its neighbors keep the lights on.

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