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Solar Lessons from the North of Chile

Roberto Rodriguez Labastida — October 30, 2015

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, and other than its large mining industry, the location is otherwise isolated. To supply this area with electricity, Chile established a local grid called Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande (SING) that is segregated from the main grid, known as Sistema Interconectado Central (SIC).

Traditionally, electricity generation in the SING network relied on relatively expensive imports of coal, natural gas (NG), and diesel. Of the 4.97 GW of installed capacity in 2014, coal represented 42.2% and NG 47.5%. As solar energy prices dropped, the region became a hot spot for solar developers because it offered a perfect combination of high electricity prices in an area with the world’s leading insulation levels. A significant number of developers pulled the trigger and began the construction of their plants, planning to sign power purchase agreements once the project was commissioned.

The problem is that every company had the same idea at the same time. Solar projects have mushroomed in the past year. By October 2015, SING had 157 MW of installed solar capacity, 80% of which was commissioned in 2015. Solar now makes up 3% of the total generation capacity, and that was before the commissioning of First Solar’s 141 MW Luz del Norte plant, which will be the largest in Latin America. This plant is in the late stages of the construction process and it is expected to begin operations before the end of 2015.

Impact on Electricity Prices

The impact of new solar capacity on daytime wholesale electricity prices has been staggering. The average hourly wholesale electricity price in October 2015 dropped 42% between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., whereas it fell only 10% in 2014 and 16% in 2013. In October 2014, prices averaged $54/MWh between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. versus $67/MWh throughout the rest of the day. By October 2015, the average day-to-night differential widened to $48/MWh between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. versus $78/MWh in the rest of the day.

Solar developers now find themselves in a predicament. Daytime electricity prices are expected to fall even further as the projects currently under construction come online, creating a death spiral that would threaten the economics of all plants and the sustainability of the whole industry. But no company wants to throw in the towel and write off all of its investment to date. The question is, who will move first?

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