TATIO GEYSERS, Chile, March 27 (Reuters) - Miners in northern Chile, the source of a third of the world’s copper, may be sitting on the answer to energy shortages that make electricity in the zone among the world’s most expensive.
The proposed source is the same geothermal energy that feeds geysers sitting on plains some 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level.
Miners producing more than 35 percent of the world’s copper devour nearly every Megawatt of energy produced in the north, and many are eager to tap into the nearby geysers.
Some groups object to tapping that power, saying it could harm water supplies and also compromise the drawing power of the geysers as one of Chile’s biggest tourist attractions.
Chile is in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, where intense volcanic activity has produced some 115 thermal sites that can generate geothermal energy, according to reports from the National Mining and Geology Service.
Soaring Andes mountains along Chile’s eastern border and the Pacific Ocean to the west enfold the world’s driest desert in the north and lush woodlands to the south.
“Positive results in the exploration phase would be good news for Chile,” said Oscar Valenzuela, chief executive at GDN, a joint venture between Chilean and Italian investors that is developing a geothermal exploration project in Quebrada del Zoquete, 4 kilometers (miles) from geysers in the heart of Chile’s mining country.
“It would open a new opportunity for our country’s geothermal potential, bringing clean energy to the power grid.”
GDN says its plant could generate 40 MW to feed into the northern power grid, or SING, which is strained to the limit as it supplies miners and other sources of power are cut off.
Last year the SING supplied miners who churned out most of Chile’s 5.33 million tonnes of copper production.
The energy crisis situation has become more dire in recent years after Argentina slashed its natural gas exports to the area, cutting off a key affordable fuel for generating plants.
But some in the region in the Atacama desert - so dry that many compare it to lunar landscapes - see the initiative as a threat to limited water supply.
For environmentalist Julio Ramos the plains near El Tatio, the largest geothermal park of the Southern Hemisphere and the third largest on the planet, are untouchable, because the springs feed the Atacama with some of the little water it has.
“This region of the mountains holds the springs that feed the zone. Our system is very fragile and we anything that disturbs it will have consequences,” said Ramos, of the Lican Antay people who inhabit the oasis and valleys of the region.
“It would be better not to conduct geothermal exploration because it would have an impact.”
Ramos also argued any contribution from geothermal energy would do little to alleviate the power deficit.
“It won’t have an impact in our energy shortfall,” he said near the geysers that shoot boiling, 26-foot (8-meter) columns of water and steam from the ground for four hours each morning.
Ramos said the GDN project was only approved because state copper miner Codelco, the world’s biggest miner, needs the power to run one of its biggest mines.
“The project was approved for two reasons, the mining industry needs that resource, the energy, and because part of that energy will be used by Codelco at Chuquicamata,” he said.
Geysers at Tatio, which means “crying grandpa” in the local Kunza language, are a visited by most of the 80,000 tourists to this area of the Atacama desert, some 1.670 kilometers north of Santiago.
“For us, El Tatio is an icon, a unique place, you can’t mess with the icing on the cake”, said Llerco Quezada Lima, director of the Atacama Association for Tourism and the Environment.
“I won’t say no to geothermic, but not here,” he said.
Writing by Patricia Velez; Editing by David Gregorio