Going Energy Independent in Chile
By Lori Dorchak
Chile is a country with energy problems. Sadly, politics, bureaucracy, and inefficiency have stalled out many improvements in the energy grid, stifling economic growth and creating high energy costs for industry and private consumers.
Only 6 % of the national energy capacity is renewable energy with 30 % in hydro and the remaining 64 % in thermoelectric plants running on coal, natural gas and oil. Chile produces little to none of these resources so it is dependent on imports. And only three companies generate 90 % of the power.
I see these two items as being very problematic and a very good reason to learn about and become energy independent.
The current president, Michele Bachelet, has aimed at getting renewable energy resources up to 20 % from six percent. Northern Chile and the Atacama desert is one of the places with the highest solar radiation in the world and is home to the first solar plant in South America. It is also home to the first wind farm in Chile, El Arrayan, 400 km north of Santiago. It supplies enough energy to power 200,000 homes.
Not knowing much about solar, we wondered if it was workable in our area, the Valdivian Rainforest, where we get 100+ inches of rain per year. To our surprise, it is workable and only during the rainiest weeks of the winter do we have to be careful of our energy consumption. And this would be cured if we bought more panels and batteries.
We did look into purchasing power from the local company, SEASA. The power lines run through our property but they wanted $5,000 USD for a transformer and the labor to hook us up. Plus we would have a monthly bill for the rest of our lives of 20-30 cents per kilowatt hour and going up. In the USA, you probably pay 10-12 cents per kilowatt hour. At least that was the Duke Power rates we paid in South Carolina when we left in 2013.
So we started getting quotes for solar systems. Not an easy task as you can’t just look it up online. Many opportunities here depend on who you know. A solar installer was doing an installation locally and was down at the hardware store buying some parts, talking to the owner. Later that day the hardware store owner and friend called us to tell us about the solar guy. He knew we were looking. And so in this way we got three quotes from $5,000 to $30,000 USD. We wanted a system to power our spring pump and cabin. I don’t even know now what that $30,000 quote was going to get us but it must have been a pretty fantastic system, though totally out of our budget!
We went with the $5,000 plan even though it did not include the pump system for our spring. The system is a little undersized but more in line with our budget. It includes six panels at 250 watts each, six batteries 12 volt 100 AH, a 2 KW inverter, and the controller plus installation. This powers our cabin with a refrigerator, lights, water pump booster. and a few small appliances, though the toaster won’t work unless it’s sunny.
In order to run the spring pump, washing machine, or larger power tools, we must run our generator. The system is so simple and now that we have seen how it’s done, I think Jim could add on to it himself. Plus we want to get a solar hot water heater. Currently, we are using a propane instant hot water heater. Not only does it not work well (you can get blasted with cold water in the middle of your shower) but it makes us dependent on propane, which is expensive. A 45 liter tank costs us 55,000 pesos or about $80 to $100. USD depending on the exchange rate. When we were using propane for cooking, this would barely last us a month.
The switch on the top switches the house from solar to generator. Now if we can only figure out how to charge the batteries from the generator. The breaker box is on the left. The controller is the black box on the right. The 2 KW inverter is the big blue box. The batteries are in a box underneath this closet under the house.
Two ways our solar provider kept prices down was by using cheaper Chinese goods and by having us order the parts directly from ESOL, a solar parts store in Santiago, to avoid extra taxes and markups. The panels were 115,000 CP (Chilean pesos) or at the current exchange rate $167 USD. The batteries were 100,000 CP or $145. USD. The 2 KW inverter was 380,000 CP or $550. USD. The controller was 55,000 CP or $80 USD. The labor for installation was 500,000 CP or $727. We had the parts shipped down by bus for 80,000 CP or $116, USD. Sadly, one of the panels broke in transit. We didn’t know until we got it home and the bus company would not replace it. And since the solar people had to come back another time when we got the replacement panel, he wanted more money. But how sweet when we first turned on the lights! And with SAESA rates, we were saving the first day we plugged in.
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