Still under construction, the Atacama 1 Concentrated Solar Power plant is a symbol of the shift from dirty fossil fuels to a cleaner, smarter way to generate electricity in Chile which is leading the charge for solar in Latin America thanks to its expanses of wilderness and some of the most intense sunlight on Earth.
Following the global climate change deal signed in Paris earlier this month, the $1.1bn project is a source of hope because it demonstrates how far renewable technology has come. But – amid reports of its Spanish owner Abengoa’s financial difficulties – it is also a reminder of how the energy transition is increasingly challenged more by financing uncertainties than engineering obstacles.
The main structure – which is already taller than London’s Gherkin or New York’s Trump Tower – is almost finished. The next big challenge will be to lift one of the heaviest slabs of steel ever made – the 2,000-tonne solar receiver – to the top with hydraulic jacks. This will be used to heat a pool of 50,000 tonnes of molten salt up to temperatures of 565C during the day so it can continue to drive turbines through the night. All that is needed after that is to polish the 10,600 heliostatic mirrors so that they can reflect sunlight up to the tower. The end result will be the dream of sustainable energy supporters – a solar facility that can provide baseload power generation of 110 megawatts (MW) for 24 hours a day.
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