F&ES in Patagonia and Santiago, Chile

Over the winter break, Jessica Leung (MEM ’17) and Ross Donihue (MEM ’18) travelled to Chile for 2 weeks as part of the Environmental Protection Clinic, a course cross-listed at F&ES and the Law School. The course is an interdisciplinary clinic that addresses environmental law and policy problems on behalf of client organizations such as environmental groups, government agencies, and international bodies.

Their client was Futaleufú Riverkeeper, a non-governmental organization in Chile dedicated to protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the Futaleufú watershed, located in northern Patagonia. More about them here.

The team spent the fall semester working with the organization’s International Director, Patrick Lynch, to do a research project on hydroelectric power and clean energy policy in Chile. Chile currently relies on hydropower for nearly a third of its energy needs, and much of this energy is located in the southern part of the country, away from its demand centers near the capital city of Santiago.

While hydropower is perceived as a generally cleaner source of energy than its fossil fuel counterparts like coal, oil, or natural gas, there are still aspects of the resource that need to be considered. These factors include its impact on local fisheries, local communities where projects are located, and the environment due to methane emissions.

The research team examined hydropower’s viability in Chile from now into the future, where additional obstacles such as expected future drought and needed transmission infrastructure are other important challenges.

Here is an executive summary of their research findings:

1. Reduce energy sources from fossil fuel in order to allow the country to reach its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions goals, achieve more energy independence, and create a policy space for protecting rivers.

2. Continue providing transparency in energy policy and development, incorporating new research when available.

3. Consider the findings from Stanford University’s Solutions Project, which provides a framework for what a renewable energy composition in Chile could look like in 2050.

4. Evaluate incorporating batteries on the grid to buffer renewables intermittency and provide grid reliability, leverage existing battery infrastructure and its strength in being one of the major lithium producers in the world.

5. Prioritize renewable energy sources that do not require damming or diverting increasingly scarce water resources and continue to diversify the country’s energy composition.

6. Deepen reforms to Chile’s Water Code and Electricity Law, which are currently allowing hydro to dominate as a water rights holder and limit market access for other interests.

7. Examine the merits of possible decommissioning of existing dams as Chile seeks to optimize its energy portfolio.

8. Hydropower generators should explore efficiency improvements like adding new capacity or turbines to non-powered dams, reducing the need to create new dams.

Ross and Jessica wrote a draft white paper before their trip to Chile and presented their initial findings to policymakers in Santiago, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Energy, and Foreign Relations. They also got to visit (and raft!) the Futaleufú River and explored other parts of the Patagonia region to understand the various watersheds and experience the landscape for themselves.

The following photos are highlights from their adventures:


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