“When they offered it to me, I thought that I would never again work on this type of project in my professional life (...) it had never been done in Chile, and this type of job had to meet Chilean safety standards and climatic conditions. It was essential to acquire all the know-how nobody had that moment.”
Nunzio lived between Santiago and Calama when construction started in 2020, but things changed with Covid and its restrictions. Because constant travel became risky, he decided to move to the northern city, and what he thought would be a temporary solution has lasted two years now.
Today, from his office container in the middle of a construction site, he says that being there is a unique opportunity, especially for a European. "There is no desert where I'm from, so getting to know this type of natural beauty is completely different from what I'm used to (...) where I'm from you would never live in a desert in your life. It is something to experience," says Azabache's Site Manager.
Abraham Rebolledo, a supervisor of the Valle de los Vientos Operation & Maintenance team, said it was an "excellent idea" when presented with a solar farm project that would use almost half the land.
“The distance between the wind turbines allows space for a solar farm, so I thought it was an excellent initiative. It optimizes space.”
With the arrival of new equipment for the solar plant's construction, communication between the wind plant in operation and the solar project under construction was key to Azabache's accident-free and successful engineering project. One of the most complex tasks, according to both experts, was coordinating the installation of the solar farm's subway cables so that they would not interfere with those of the wind farm.
Being separate circuits, i.e., the energy carried by both plants does not join until it reaches the National Interconnected System, the feat was to coordinate the disconnection of the cables in operation to install the new ones.
"A wind project includes wind turbines and all the medium voltage cables that go underneath. We had an extension to cover with photovoltaic panels, with their respective low and medium voltage cables that we often found interfered with the energized cables of the wind project. If touched by mistake, it could cause lethal accidents or even cause machinery to explode," says Nunzio.
Renewable energy day and night
For Abraham, the Atacama Desert "is a unique place, and specific conditions must be met to build a wind farm. There are studies years in advance to calculate how much wind we are going to have, and in addition to that, solar radiation is tremendous in the desert, where there are almost no cloudy days."
With this perfect mix, the incorporation of Azabache into the National Electric System could allow power generation 24 hours a day. A solar farm has a peak time from 1:00 pm to approximately 4:00 pm. "In the case of Valle de los Vientos, after midday, we have more wind, and in that period, we will have full solar and wind generation capacity," Abraham says.
In terms of energy production, Valle de los Vientos provides an installed capacity of 90 MW, while the solar plant is estimated to have a maximum capacity of 60 MW. Azabache's good performance is since it will be the first project in Chile to start operating with 100% bifacial modules, a type of photovoltaic panel capable of capturing radiation on both sides, also taking advantage of the bounce on the ground.
"The production attributed to photovoltaic is necessary for the operation of 46 thousand homes, thus benefiting approximately 115 thousand people," Nunzio assured.
Hybrid plants are making headway
The start-up of Azabache is just the beginning of this challenge to take full advantage of the renewable resources of northern Chile.
Almost an hour's drive from Calama, immersed in the Atacama Desert, Chile's Abraham and Italy's Nunzio will once again work together to build the country's second hybrid project, the Las Salinas solar plant within the Sierra Gorda Este wind farm.
This new plant will have a larger installed capacity of 380 MW, in addition to the current 110 MW of wind power capacity, which combined will have more than three times the power of Azabache and Valle de los Vientos combined since their land covers 5,500 hectares.
"I'm going to convey my experience from Azabache, with all the mistakes and decisions that we made without having much experience, it will be much simpler with this new plant," says Nunzio, who goes every other day to this second project.
For Abraham, the Las Salinas project also represents an instance of improvement to what Azabache was, which he summarizes as a "contribution to the planet." "We are generating renewable energy in two ways in the same area, and being part of that motivates me to continue participating in this type of project," he acknowledges and also highlights the learning obtained thanks to teamwork. "Perhaps when the park is in operation, we will be able to learn more about solar technology, and they will learn more about us," he concludes.