First CSP plant in South America

solar thermal power plant

Thanks to IKI funding the concentrated solar power (CSP) plant Cerro Dominador in Chile’s Atacama Desert started operations in early June this year. Photo: Cerro Dominador

Despite its many natural advantages, Chile made little use of wind and solar power until 2014. Even today, the generation of electricity from imported coal still continues, making up more than 40 percent of power generation in the country.

In recent years, however, and thanks in no small part to several projects financed by International Climate Initiative (IKI), Chile has taken active steps towards rolling out the use of renewables, and wind power and photovoltaics in particular. The country’s exit from coal is now gathering pace and the decarbonisation of the power sector is likely in the foreseeable future. 

With its clear blue skies and the world’s highest measured values for solar incidence, the Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the perfect environment for the use of solar power. And the desert offers especially advantageous conditions for concentrated solar power in particular. Concentrated solar power (CSP) plants utilise reflectors to focus the sun’s rays, first creating heat (thermal energy), which is then transformed into electricity.

IKI has supported the power plant project over its entire construction phase from 2014 to 2019 via the ‘Promoting solar power in Chile’ projects, which were organised by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) Devlopment bank as part of the German Climate and Technology Initiative (DKTI). During this period, the GIZ managed technical aspects while the KfW was and is responsible for the finance component, which runs to 2021.

solar thermal power plant

With its 10,600 mirrors, known as heliostats, the Cerro Dominador solar power plant reflects solar radiation onto a thermal solar receiver atop a tower stretching 250 m into the sky. Hot, molten salts at temperatures of up to 560 °C circulate through this absorber, transferring the heat to a steam circuit used to drive a turbine. Thanks to a thermal storage tank system that is charged during daylight hours, thermal energy can be stored for up to 17.5 hours, ensuring that the plant can guarantee the reliable generation of power over a period of 24 hours or more.

Supplementing the CSP plant with a peak power output of 110 MW is an integrated 100 MW (peak) photovoltaic system: overall, this electricity generation complex can therefore produce an electrical peak power output of around 210 MW for feed-in into the Chilean national grid.

Financial backing totalling USD 120 million has been provided to the project from KfW and the KfW IPEX bank. In addition, the European Union has also awarded the innovative project a grant of EUR 15 million from its Latin American Investment Facility (LAIF).

In the context of Chilean energy planning, CSP plants have a decisive role to play, since they cover the deficits in base load that will occur as coal power plants are progressively taken offline.

Solar power plant control unit

Especially in the north of the country, where power demands are high due to copper mining operations, renewable power plants capable of providing base-load power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week are a critical asset for ensuring Chile’s exit from high-emission coal power. Achieving sustainable power generation is also a necessary step towards achieving Chile’s climate targets.  

Federal Environment Minister Schulze remarked: "As the first solar thermal power plant in South America, Cerro Dominador is a beacon for the entire region. I hope that more of these power plants will be constructed to tap the enormous potential of solar energy. Today Chile is taking another big step towards a climate-neutral future."

Eckdaten Cerro Dominador

  • CSP plant generating capacity: 110 MWe
  • Energy storage capacity (molten salt): 17.5 h
  • CSP technology type: Tower
  • Tower height: 252 m
  • Number of reflectors: 10,600
  • Site footprint: 146 ha
  • PV system generating capacity: 100 MWp
  • CO2 emissions saved by overall complex: 870,000 t CO2/year (approx.)