How Enel closed all of its coal-powered plants

Published on Friday, 30 September 2022

Valeria Arancibia

“The energy transition is a new challenge. We are moving towards a much greener phase where renewable energies will take center stage. The work we do now at the start will evolve, and our challenge as professionals is to be versatile, to learn about other technologies, and to continue contributing to energy generation in Chile,” she explains.

In May 2020, Enel announced its decision to push up the disconnection of Bocamina I to that same December and Bocamina II to 2022, in comparison to the dates initially committed by the company in the National Decarbonization Plan signed with the Ministry of Energy in June 2019, which projected the closure of unit I by the end of 2023 and Bocamina II in 2040.

How did Enel manage to close the last coal-powered plant in Chile 18 years ahead of schedule?

“This is the result of more than a decade of work and planning. We wanted to position ourselves as the company with the greatest renewable energy capacity in the country and a leader of the energy transition in Chile, and we have followed through with that promise. We are the first company to close all of its coal-powered plants and, at the same time, we are working to add solar, wind, and geothermal power capacity in the short and medium term.”

– Fabrizio Barderi, CEO of Enel Chile

The company's strategic plan considers important innovation projects like the first industrial-scale solar-wind hybrid plant in Chile (Azabache in the Antofagasta Region, which began operating in August 2022); the development of energy storage systems at two new wind-power plants (La Cabaña and Rihue); and the expansion of the first geothermal plant in South America (Cerro Pabellon in the Antofagasta Region).

However, this leap would never have been possible without past achievements. In 2007, Enel inaugurated the first industrial-scale wind-power park in Chile; in 2014, it began operating its first three solar power plants; and in 2017, it inaugurated the first Cerro Pabellon unit, to name a few of the milestones along the roadmap it began tracing over a decade ago, and which ultimately allowed the company to announce, in 2019, the early closure of its three coal-powered plants.

What is a fair transition?

The concept of energy transition refers to the current transformation to a 100% renewable energy matrix and replace fossil fuels with electricity in transportation, domestic consumption, and industries. However, the more comprehensive concept to describe how this process is carried out is the fair energy transition.

The work done in Coronel is a good example of this. The final closure of Bocamina considered a plan that began over two years ago and sought to fulfill all commitments previously made to the communities, including offering job opportunities to all Enel plant workers, providing training options for the plant's top contractors, and developing a phase-out process after disconnection that was aligned to the company's mission to drive sustainable development.

The story of Michael Navarro is a good example of this fair transition plan in Coronel. After the closure of the Bocamina I unit in 2020, its 28 workers were offered new job options. Later, the same program covered the 56 people who had worked at Bocamina II. Michael is one of them.

Michael Navarro

“Bocamina was a like a family to me. We all thought we were going to retire from the plant,” he admits. However, the plant’s closure ended up offering him new options in the renewable sector. “This change was more of an opportunity,” he explains.

Michael now works in the area of renewable energy generation at Enel Green Power, and his job consists of defining the maintenance activities for all of the company's solar park equipment.

He also went from working 12-hour shifts at Bocamina II to a hybrid work system. Now he works eight days a month at the Enel Chile headquarters in Santiago or on-site at the different solar power plants in Antofagasta and Atacama. The rest of the month, he works remotely from his home in Concepcion so he can stay close to his family.

“You see those details and are convinced you’ve found a place that motivates you to keep contributing and working, to give it your all. I'm enjoying what life has brought me, and I'm optimistic about what's to come,” Michael emphasizes.

With the closure of Enel's coal-powered plants (Tarapaca in December 2019, Bocamina I in December 2020, and Bocamina II in September 2022), Enel has offered all displaced workers the opportunity to take on new employment challenges within the company. Moreover, the main contractor companies that provided services to the Bocamina Plant have been included in the Trade Reconversion and Job Skills Accreditation Programs. With both of these programs, Enel Chile can work with a diverse range of profiles and qualifications, either through Sence or directly through programs managed by the company.

“Leading a fair energy transition means transforming our energy matrix without leaving anyone behind. That is, we have to take responsibility for the impact this process may have on the thermal power plant workers and the surrounding communities, in order to ensure that the benefits of this transition flow to them as well.”

– James Lee Stancampiano, CEO of Enel Generación

Coronel: The site of an unprecedented process

Within this line of vision, Enel embarked upon a new phase in its relations with the town of Coronel and its residents. That year, Bocamina I and II were modernized to incorporate the latest generation technologies and to become an environmental management leader among coal-powered plants in Latin America. Two geodesic domes were built to cover the coal storage fields and reduction systems were implemented to fully comply with the emissions limits set by current regulations, along with a continuous emissions monitoring system that sends data online to the environmental authority. Moreover, state-of-the-art filters were incorporated within the water adduction system to make Bocamina the plant with the highest coal management standard in Chile and South America.

Additionally, the company started an unprecedented human rights process within the Coronel community to repair the existing gaps generated by prior processes around the Bocamina I and II plants.

“The closure of Bocamina II comes as part of a fair transition process in social and environmental terms. When Enel arrived to Coronel six years ago, the social impact was significant. Our work was based on ongoing dialogue, transparency, and making sure everyone was heard. This led to different solutions related to the right to housing, to financial autonomy, and to social development of the Coronel community.”

– Antonella Pellegrini, Sustainability Manager for Enel Chile

Within the framework of this plan, we helped restore 20 local fishermen's union offices and supported 3,300 micro and small businesses with competition grants, 54% of which were led by women. The process also considered the construction and renovation of 1,370 social housing units, 6 community headquarters, including infrastructure built through circular economy models, and 8 churches. This was in addition to the funding of the new Rosa Medel School, the restoration of sport and recreation areas, the implementation of new urban and social spaces, and scholarships granted to 156 college students, among other initiatives.

“It was difficult at first, and it definitely marked a before and after,” admits Guadalupe Prieto, social leader of the Huertos Familiares community, who highlights the shift in their relationship with the company starting in 2017.

“We began conversations, and things just started to flow, all based on dialogue and mutual respect. They were able to put themselves in our shoes, they respected our history, and that was what was really exciting about this process.”

– Guadalupe Prieto, social leader of the Huertos Familiares community

In turn, Pellegrini notes that “human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals are at the core of our public relations strategy, and they are the pillars for generating solutions with the Coronel community, through fair treatment.”

After announcing that it would push up the Bocamina II closure to September 2022, Enel confirmed that it would follow through with all current agreements made with the Coronel community, including programs that would carry on until completion after the plant was closed.

“The transparency, confidence, and professional and personal virtues of the team dedicated exclusively to this project has helped pave a common path, a relationship, and a perspective of the future and sustainable progress in the area for Enel and the community,” concludes Pellegrini.

This goes hand-in-hand with the environmental remediation project for the Bocamina Ash Dump, which started in 2019 to convert the space back to 10 hectares of native forest within the city of Coronel, thanks to the work of Enel Generación professionals and native forest specialists from the Universidad de Concepción. As of September 2022, two thirds of the dump were already in the process of revegetation, covering the ashes collected with tree, plant, and shrub species using innovative soil preparation techniques.

Now, after the final closure of Bocamina, this project enters a new phase to transform 100% of its surface area and offer the city a new sustainable use for this space, in line with the fair transition that characterized the closure of Enel’s last coal-powered plant in Chile.