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Solar-leader Chile got 63% of its power from renewables in 2023

Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook
Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook

In 2023, renewables accounted for 63.3% of Chile’s electricity mix, according to data collated by energy research group Ember.

The context: For decades, Chile relied mainly on coal, gas and hydroelectric plants to power its economy. But in recent years, policymakers have sought to make better use of the country’s enviable solar and wind resources.

Things have changed fast:

  • Renewables, mainly hydro, comprised just 33.1% of the electricity mix as recently as 2016 — the year that power-sector emissions peaked.
  • Now, wind and solar hold the largest share of the mix, with solar alone contributing 20% of annual electricity output — the highest level globally.

The road ahead: Home to 20 million people, Chile aims to get to 80-90% renewable electricity by 2030. It’ll eliminate coal altogether before then, if all goes according to plan.

Because variable solar and wind technologies will do the heavy lifting, the South American country is scaling up its battery storage sector.

According to Interact Analysis, Chile has 1.3GW of operational storage facilities, and a pipeline of 6.4GW in various stages of development.

In late 2023, the government approved a resolution to allocate public land for energy storage projects with a combined capacity of 2GW or 13.2GWh.

Lessons for others: “Chile’s model is replicable,” former environment minister Marcelo Mena-Carrasco tells The Progress Playbook.

He attributes the brisk transition to efforts to promote competition and new entrants in the electricity sector — via an ongoing auction programme — as well as the introduction of emissions standards and carbon pricing in the industry, he says.

Political consensus on the need for a shift to solar and wind helped to speed things up too. That came in the wake of strong opposition to new coal projects in the early 2010s, and after communities railed against proposed hydro projects in Patagonia.

In short, “Chile’s revolution is anchored on solid free market economy principles” coupled with measures to tackle “the externalities of pollution”, adds Mena-Carrasco, a biochemical engineer.

Santiago, Chile. Picture: Pixabay.

Ember said in a recent report that Chile’s rapid shift from coal to wind and solar “provides inspiration for other emerging economies”.

“Decoupling emissions and economic growth is the goal for emerging economies that want to continue to develop while also tackling the climate crisis. While many countries still rely on coal to meet expanding electricity demand, Chile has proven that wind and solar can do the job.”

With coal output declining rapidly, emissions from Chile’s power sector fell by 15% in the decade to 2022, according to Ember. That’s despite electricity demand growing by more than a quarter over the same period as the economy expanded and the state introduced policies to electrify transport.

Meanwhile, other South American countries are even further ahead in the energy transition. Uruguay, for instance, ran on 100% renewables for four straight months in mid-2023.

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