CEO of Chilean Energy Company Defends Project to Dam Patagonia

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This guest post comes from TIME contributor Aaron Nelsen in Santiago

In the tumultuous days since HidroAysén – a joint project of energy companies Endesa and Colbun – won government approval to build five hydroelectric dams in Patagonia, Chief Executive Officer Daniel Fernández has been working furiously to beat back the tide of controversy surrounding the estimated $7 billion project.

The much anticipated vote on the dams sparked nationwide protests with thousands flooding the streets and clashing with police following its approval. The latest polls show a commanding 61 percent of the Chilean public are now opposed to the dams, so unpopular have they become in fact that former President Ricardo Lagos made headlines when he said the dams should not be built a day after openly supporting the project.

Fernández laments the emotional response his project has incited if for no other reason than that the campaign against the dams, under the slogan Patagonia Without Dams, is built on the pillars of three falsehoods, he says. First that the project will destroy Patagonia; second that power lines will be hung across Torres Del Paine and other national monuments; and third that the sole purpose of the project is to feed energy to mining operations in Northern Chile.

Indeed, Patagonia Without Dams resonates with the average Chilean like none other in a country where energy output must double over the next decade to keep pace with economic growth, according to Energy Minister Laurence Golborne. American entrepreneur turned conservationist and Patagonia resident Douglas Tompkins called Patagonia Without Dams “the epic campaign in whole history of Chile’s environmental movement” a characterization Fernández agrees with, adding perhaps the most aggressive in all of Latin America.

Early designs for tapping into Patagonia’s rivers date back to 1950, among the earliest belongs to a former college professor of Fernández’s whose concept was much more invasive than the current design that proposes to flood less by utilizing a series of cascading dams. The best part, according to Fernández, is the dams would reach their peak generation during the summer months of December, January and February when glacial melt swells the lakes that feed the rivers, and Chile’s other hydroelectric dams are at their lowest.

“These are the most efficient dams in the world in terms of gigawatt generated per hectare of inundation,” Fernández said. “There isn’t another in the world that can generate this kind of energy with dams this small.”

Efficiency aside HidroAysén’s detractors have assailed the project largely because Chile has more attractive, and popular, alternative energy options, a claim Fernández disputes. Depending on the wattage, Fernández claims, it would take around 4,000 wind turbines to equal the energy output of HidroAysén.

“Renewable nonconventional energy has its place, but you can’t pretend to double the energy matrix with solar and wind alone,” Fernández claims.

Patagonia Without Dams and HidroAysén suddenly find themselves at the center of a national debate about how to balance environmental conservation while at the same time increasing energy output. Despite receiving the government endorsement to build the dams the battle to build nearly 1200 miles of power lines to transport the energy out of the region has only just begun.

To be clear, Fernández says, he’s never denied that building dams wouldn’t have a negative environmental impact, but questions whether dotting the landscape with wind turbines is any less invasive. In the end Chileans have to choose.

“There is a saying. Is it bad to be old? Well, compared to what, being young or dead?” Fernández quipped as he left the room.