Two solar power plants to relieve mining sector’s power needs in Chile

As subsidies for renewable energy are falling in the depressed European economies, which represent the world’s largest market for solar technology, manufacturers have started looking to new markets.

One example is First Solar, a major developer of solar power plants in North America, which announced Friday it will start expanding to Latin America, being Chile the first country in which it is landing.

According to local newspaper El Diario, the company plans to build at least two plants of about 50 to 100 megawatts next year, both in the mining rich northern Chile.

Mining companies in the area regularly struggle with power supply issues. Although mostly in the form of electricity, it’s been estimated that major mining operations eat up as much as 80% of Chile’s energy.

And the demand for power keeps growing among the mining companies operating in Chile at an estimated rate of at least 5% annually for the next several years.

Cristian Sjogren, First Solar’s general manager told El Diario that his company is in a good position as it provides a reliable source of power that doesn’t require the consumption of water, a resource that northern Chile is short of.

Profits of solar panel manufacturers have collapsed in recent months because a surplus of solar panels on the global market has reduced its prices. The drop, however, has made solar power less expensive and more attractive to small and medium size companies, as well as homeowners and utilities.

According to Bloomberg, U.S. Solar installations surged 85% in the first quarter of this year as prices have dropped 47%. Last year solar installations more than doubled compared with 2010.

In recent months, experts have warned that the South American nation, the top copper producer in the world, will not be able to keep mining for the red metal, gold and other minerals if the country doesn’t find a solution to their pressing energy needs.

Currently, Chile imports about 98% of all the fossil fuels it uses and it is estimated the country will need between 6,000 and 8,000 megawatts in the next 10 years to keep up current production levels.

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