The last gasp for coal

Published on Friday, 18 December 2020

“It is sad from the human perspective, the camaraderie that has been created, but this change is needed. Thanks to coal technology, we have been able to generate energy that couldn't have been done by other technologies. But over time, we've realized that we do not need so much coal and that we can do the same with cleaner, greener technologies.”

– Alcalde said.

Bocamina's closure is not a temporary decision, says Alcalde, but rather part of a global project the Enel Group became engaged in more than a decade ago in various countries around the world. Renewable energy plants in Chile date back to 2006 in the Coquimbo region with Canela, the first industrial wind farm to be built in the country. Enel's renewable energy ambitions were firmly established in 2019 with its announcement of an ambitious plan to build 2 GW of renewable power stations by 2022, more than 4 times the installed capacity of Bocamina I and II combined. At the end of 2020, Enel upped the ante, updating its goal to reach 2.4 GW of installed capacity by 2023, of which more than half (1.3 GW) began construction between 2019 and 2020.

Bocamina and the history of coal

Without coal, the industrial revolution would never have been possible. Thanks to coal, Chile was able to electrify its cities and industries, rail transport and smelters from the end of the 19th century. Lota, located just a few kilometers from Coronel, quickly positioned itself as the country's main coal city. But this boom began to wane after the 1950s.

The subsequent ups and downs of the coal industry can be seen through the history of the Bocamina I thermoelectric plant. This plant was inaugurated in the '70s and fulfilled a pivotal role in power generation during that decade.

Jorge Moore has dedicated 34 years of his life to Bocamina and believes the plant was hugely important for the area.

“Corfo was a cog and in the center was an industry with a chimney. It was the symbol of progress. When Bocamina I was built in Coronel it was a great leap forward for the community. Many of the people who worked there were from the area and it led to the creation of many small businesses around it.”

– Jorge said.

Starting in the 1980s - and for much of its existence - Bocamina has played a strategic role in supporting the national electric grid.

“Everyone had faith that if the central network went down due to overconsumption, Bocamina would always be available to companies like Huachipato or ENAP, which could never have down time. It was a lifeline,” Jorge said.

Later, two important milestones would occur that revived coal’s the importance in Chile's power generation in the XXI century. First was the water shortage of '98 and '99 that affected hydroelectric power plants and, second was the suspension of Argentine gas exports in 2007 that affected gas-fired thermoelectric power generation. Not only did this underscore the strategic importance of Bocamina I, but it led to the construction of a second plant.

New challenges, new generations

The construction of Bocamina II allowed for new technological and environmental standards to be introduced not only for that unit, but also for Bocamina I. It also saw the arrival of new generations of workers.

"Bocamina II helped introduce new work standards to Bocamina I," Alcalde said, adding that, "the equipment we introduced to mitigate emissions is practically the same size as the plant itself."

According to Mauricio Lagos, who joined the plant in 1996, “If you tell people from one day to the next that if emissions from the chimney go up, the plant will have to stop, it is not easy for them to get used to that. For them their focus has always been on continuing to generate at all costs. Today, people have a different mentality, which has been influenced by the arrival of new generations of workers,” Lagos said. “Today it is inconceivable for many people to imagine an energy plant that is not environmentally sustainable.”

In 2017, another important change took place. This time it was not only technological, but more far reaching, affecting the company's sustainability focus in the region. Enel invested US$200 million in modernizing the plant. Along with this was a new plan for relating with the Coronel communities, recognizing gaps in previous plans and establishing new guidelines based on internationally recommended and measurable methodologies.

The largest geodesic domes in South America were built for coal collection using abatement systems and systems for continuously monitoring emissions using online data from an open and public platform. They also incorporated state-of-the-art filters in the water adduction system. All of this was expressed through a new corporate culture of sustainable development.

Environmental engineer Valeria Arancibia, who has been working at the plant for almost a decade, explains how she helped communicate this new vision to her work colleagues.

“For example, when the domes were being built, those who were assembling the structure only saw what they were building. But I explained to them: ‘This is an environmental improvement project. You are building a dome that will capture and prevent dust pollution.”

– said Valeria.

Leaving no one behind

Today these workers, along with all their colleagues, are undergoing an unprecedented transition process in the energy sector. Enel has promised to transfer all Bocamina workers who wish to continue in the company to new areas. And opportunities are not lacking. In its 2021-2023 strategic plan, the company and its subsidiaries announced ambitious goals to continue leading an energy transformation in Chile.

The objective of building 2.4 GW of solar, wind and geothermal plants is aimed at creating a grid with 77% of renewable power and 0% coal by 2023. Enel is also making progress with a plan to build 1,200 charging points for electric vehicles from Arica to Punta Arenas. Other plans include developing the green hydrogen market in Chile, including the first project of this type in the country –the HIF joint venture.

“We have been working to accelerate energy transformation in Chile, building a more efficient, economical and clean grid that is capable of sustaining the country's projected growth and at the same time reducing its impact on the environment and climate.”

– said Enel Chile's general manager Paolo Pallotti.

Eduardo Alcalde, from Coronel adds, “renewable energies are coming and that is a good thing. While this technology (coal) was the best in its time, now there are better things.”