Skip to content

Heads up - this blog post is more than 6 months old. Some details may be out of date.

Cutting carbon

Strange but true: a hydro plant in the world's driest desert

The Atacama Desert is home to a huge hydro project that couldn't work anywhere else in the world.

Pub quiz fans will know, for a fact, that the Atacama Desert is the driest region in the world. So why on earth would someone want to build a hydro plant there? This arid plateau receives less than 1mm rainfall a year, if it's lucky. Atacama holds the world record for the longest dry streak, having gone 173 months without a drop of rain in the early 20th century. To contrast, our Hydro plant in north Wales received over 300mm in December alone.

On first inspection, the Atacama Desert seems like an odd location to place a hydroelectricity plant, but despite these apparent drawbacks, we think this is actually a really smart move.

The Atacama desert is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. This unique positioning means it's perfectly suited for seawater energy storage. The desert gives almost perfect conditions for solar generation which is used to pump water from the sea high into the mountains to be used when the grid's energy needs demand it. This is one of the only places in the world where such a system can really work.

This allows Chile to neatly sidestep one of the biggest problems facing large scale solar. Solar panels tend to be most efficient when people need them the least. When the sun is shining, you don't need your lights on or your heating turned up. But when it's cold and dark and you need heat and light, your solar panels aren't producing the power you need. Hydro projects like this solve this problem and also solve another problem that energy grids face. Not only can they provide a constant source of baseline energy, they can also be turned on at short notice to cope with short term peaks in demand. Like when people make a cuppa during the Corrie ad break.

We have similar schemes in the UK. Deep inside a Welsh mountain we have the Dinorwig Power Station. This mammoth project broke construction records when 12 million tons of rock were removed to make space for its motors and turbines. It was worth it though, as it's helped make the UK grid more resilient to blackouts with its ability to go from zero to full power in just 16 seconds.

We think that's pretty awesome.