Chile starts its move away from fossil fuels

Published on Monday, 13 June 2022

Smart Plaza, La Florida

This is not the future; this is happening right now. Currently, we are seeing a trend towards more sustainability and inclusivity in our societies driven by a common element - electricity. This transition is called electrification and consists of starting to use electric energy in settings where fossil energy sources have traditionally been used and released emissions directly into the atmosphere, such as with transport services, real estate development and industrial processes.

"Chile is the only emerging economy anywhere in the world to have set itself a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 and enshrined that challenge in its legislation. Much of the focus on carbon emissions reduction has been put on power plants, which of course are critical, but not the only culprits", said Karla Zapata, general manager of Enel X Chile.

“Attention is also needed to decarbonize other areas where fossil fuels are used, such as transport, heating, hot water and production processes in general. Switching from oil and gas to electricity is the most efficient and economically viable method for Chile and the world over to decarbonize in the short, medium and long term.”

– Karla Zapata, general manager of Enel X Chile.

Electricity for getting around

Two years ago, inspired by her children's environmental awareness, Virginia Nagase decided to change the way she chooses products and services. “When making a choice between different options, one should take the levels of CO2 emissions into consideration,” Nagase said.

With this new mindset, Virginia decided to switch to using an electric car.

“The only doubt in my mind was that as I live in Colina and work downtown, I didn't know if the car's battery would last long enough to get me there and back again. If there is something that needs to be improved in electric cars, it is their autonomy. Normally they can run for 250-300km and you learn to manage the car's performance (...) for example, you consume less energy when you go downhill, which is what happens when I'm going back home, the energy consumption is minimal. You learn to calculate autonomy in a different way and once you get used to it, it's wonderful,” Nagase said.

Electromobility has really taken off in Chile. The number of electric buses operating on Santiago's RED public transport system will double to more than 2,000 in 2023. In January and February this year, there was a 178% increase in sales of electric and hybrid vehicles compared to the same period in 2021.

The growth in popularity of electric vehicles has led to an increase in the number of charging stations. In January 2022, Santiago's Pudahuel municipality inaugurated the first “Electro Service Station” in Latin America. With 23 charging points, the station can service more vehicles simultaneously than conventional gas stations. This milestone forms part of the Enel X Way ElectroRuta project, which will see the installation of 1,200 charging points throughout the country. With some 320 charging points already in place, electric vehicle users have more than 5,000 kilometers of roads covered for driving and recharging from north to south.

Nagase welcomes the new infrastructure. She usually charges her car at home but also appreciates having more charging points available in Santiago.

“The increased number of charging stations that have appeared have been a great help to me, for psychological reasons, for example, when you say to yourself 'oh, I only have 50km of battery life left, will it be enough to get me to my destination?' But now that there are so many charging stations at multiple points in Santiago it is very easy to stop and recharge.”

– Virginia Nagase, who drives an electric car.

Nagase believes it is feasible to make the transition to electric mobility and replace fossil fuels with electricity.

“I am convinced that this is where we are going. But it is just part of a whole range of steps we need to take. I believe that countries have to move towards more sustainable energy grids. (…) Obviously the clean energy generated by these cars will make for a much more sustainable environment for future generations. Otherwise, this would be no more than about shifting emissions around,” Nagase said. “This is about taking different decisions and concrete actions every day which, when combined, lead to an improvement in the quality of life for you and those around you."

Virginia Nagase and her electric car.

Living in an energy-efficient home

Just as with transport, there is great potential for using electrification to drive more sustainable development in the real estate sector. In fact, Santiago already has smart and efficient buildings, such as the Borja Plaza building in the La Cisterna district.

"For this project, we deployed photovoltaic panels, which supply energy that is then recorded on our usage meter and is deducted from our electricity bill. The building also has heat pumps and water storage tanks that provide hot water to some 300 families with no need for natural gas or other fossil fuels," said Mauricio Bustos of Inmobiliaria CIDEPA.

In addition, all apartments are equipped with efficient electrical appliances, such as cookers, ventilators and lighting systems. CIDEPA and Enel X have been working on efficient projects for 12 years and they are helping to raise housing standards throughout the capital.

“Over the next 10 years, demand for this type of building will continue to rise as people put more importance on environmental protection and energy efficiency. More and more people are asking about these technologies.”

– Mauricio Bustos of Inmobiliaria CIDEPA.

According to Karla Zapata, both the private and public sectors will influence how fast this process occurs.

"Electrification can be accelerated through regulations that push different stakeholders to make their processes more sustainable. It can also be helped by rising demand from customers that seek to make the jump to more efficient technologies. And we can play an active role as a company by introducing our solutions to new customers and offering them a value proposition where electricity powers our world in a sustainable way. We are working towards that," Zapata said.

Rethinking the electricity grid

There is a third part to this equation, which while it may seem less obvious, is of equal importance - the electricity distribution network.

"There is a chain of services. Power generation plants are being transformed and efficient and sustainable products are being developed for homes, cities, industries and transport services. In order to effectively bring these benefits to everybody, we are also modernizing the energy grid so that it can support new uses for electricity. This transition requires a resilient, secure, flexible and digitized grid," said Paola Carrasco, Head of Grid Development at Enel Distribución's Infrastructure and Networks division.

What does the modernization of the grid and electricity service entail? For example, Enel Distribución became the first company in Chile to start operating two satellite centers in Colina and Pudahuel. These state-of-the-art installations strengthen the reach of the grid in these areas and make it more flexible. They also enable the division of electricity consumption into small blocks. This means that, in the event of the failure of one of the main feeders, another feeder can channel the load from the damaged block while the electricity supply is being restored remotely using the latest technology.

Other innovations include the installation of 2,659 remote control devices throughout the city, which also allow remote management of the network. These gadgets provide flexibility to the system, allowing both programmed maintenance or emergency repair work to be carried out in real-time. Also worthy of note is the ability to carry out preventive inspections of electricity grids using drones and cameras with lasers and thermographic technology, both of which improve the planning of the annual maintenance program.

This modernization process also involves migrating from a linear grid, i.e., where electricity flows from an original source to its final destination, to a multi-directional grid, where the customers themselves can contribute energy to the system.

"Today we have a much more dynamic grid. Every day we see more and more customers injecting power into the grid, either via Small Means of Distributed Generation or as domestic consumers," said Carrasco. He adds that the way we interact with the electricity system and the energy that we use on a daily basis will change in the medium term.

The role the consumer plays will be different in the future. They will no longer just be a consumer, but a prosumer. Customers will use energy from the grid and also contribute energy to the electricity system, either through the use of photovoltaic panels in their homes, through battery systems or by injecting energy from their cars.

But another challenge lies ahead - the automated management of low-voltage grids designed to supply households, for example, and meet individual customer needs. To address this issue, Enel X will begin to implement technology over the next four-to-five years, starting in 2022.

"Work is already underway and people will see changes sooner than they might imagine," said Carrasco.