Environmental impact profile of electricity generation in Chile: A baseline study over two decades

Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 94 (2018) 154-167.

DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2018.05.058


Chile is one of the world largest copper producing countries, housing significant mineral reserves, and accounting for over 30% of national electricity consumption. Currently, the total installed electricity generation capacity amounts to over 20 GW and is expected to double within the next two decades. Since electricity generation is a well-known source of environmental impacts throughout its lifecycle, there is a permanent need to evaluate potential environmental burdens of alternative courses of action. Unfortunately, systematic information on the environmental performance of current electricity generation in the country is lacking. Therefore, this paper reports the potential environmental burdens of the Chilean electricity generation system over the last two decades, to account for temporal effects and serve as a baseline to which compare different strategies, following a cradle-to-gate approach based on ISO 14.040–44:2006 standards. The system limits included fuels extraction and transportation processes, and construction materials, as well as electricity generation, considering as a functional unit 1 kWh.

Plant operation, thermal efficiency and infrastructure requirements were modelled based on primary data, whereas fuels extraction, refining, and manufacturing of construction materials were obtained from Ecoinvent databases.

Changes in water availability, commercial constrains in natural gas supply, investment in renewable energy technologies, among others, have led to significant changes in the environmental profile along time. Results obtained here show stricter environmental legislation and more efficient environmental control technologies need to be introduced to promote improvements in environmental performance, with particular focus on human health and ecotoxic effects in coal-fired power plants.

Finally, new electricity generation capacity based on solar, wind, and other renewable sources should be encouraged to reduce the environmental footprint of electricity generation, thus fostering the competitiveness of Chilean exports.

This work provides a sound baseline for the assessment of future development scenarios, constituting an interesting case study for comparative studies.

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