Chile tests floating solar panels to power mine and save water

A floating island of solar panels is being tested in Chile as a way to generate clean energy and reduce water loss at mine operations, a cornerstone of the country’s economy that uses huge amounts of electricity and water.

The experimental Las Tortolas power-generating island is being run by the giant Anglo American mining company at its Los Bronces mine, as the government pushes to put Chile at the forefront of renewable energy use in Latin America and the world.

The 1,200-square-foot array of solar panels was inaugurated by mining minister Baldo Prokurica.

An island of solar panels floats in a pond at Los Bronces (Esteban Felix/AP)
An island of solar panels floats in a pond at Los Bronces (Esteban Felix/AP)

Officials said that if the test is successful, the £190,000 plant could be expanded to cover 40 hectares, or nearly 100 acres.

The array floats in the middle of a pond used to contain the refuse from mining, known as tailings, and it is expected that its shadow will lower the water temperature and reduce evaporation by 80%.

This means the mine would retain more of that water for its operations and could reduce the amount of fresh water it pumps in a dry mountainous region where it is a scarce commodity.

Workers stand on a floating island of solar panels  (Esteban Felix/AP)
Workers stand on a floating island of solar panels (Esteban Felix/AP)

“With this system, we can make our fresh water consumption more efficient, in line with our goal of re-imagining mining and reducing Anglo American’s fresh water consumption by 50% by 2030, as well as the CO2 emissions by producing non-polluting energy,” said Patricio Chacana, Los Bronces’ vice president of operations.

If the year-long experiment works as planned, the solar panel island could be expanded and new ones could be installed at other mining ponds. Experts say there are approximately 800 such ponds in Chile.

“It is an excellent idea for the traceability of the mining industry and especially in terms of more efficient use of water. This is a company that recycles 76% of the water it uses in its processes,” the mining minister said at the unveiling, and he encouraged other mining companies to follow suit.

The mine is about 40 miles from Santiago (Esteban Felix/AP)
The mine is about 40 miles from Santiago (Esteban Felix/AP)

Mr Prokurica said the Mining Ministry is working on a plan to improve the safety of mine holding ponds, to guard against failures such as one at an iron ore mine recently in Brazil that unleashed a wall of mud that killed at least 186 people and polluted hundreds of miles of river.

Many of the tailing ponds in the north of the country are near urban centres.

Los Bronces is about 11,500ft above sea level and 40 miles from the country’s capital Santiago. The mine produced 370,000 tons of fine copper and 2,421 tons of molybdenum last year.

Almost 20% of the energy produced and used in Chile comes from renewable sources, up from 6% in 2013.

- Press Association

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