In the plains of Chile’s Atacama desert, a solar power tower more than 650 feet tall is under construction. As part of the project, a growing field of huge mirrors is spread out for over a mile.  

The Atacama 1 Concentrated Solar Power Plant illustrates the efforts to shift away from damaging fossil fuels to a smarter, cleaner way to create energy. And Chile is a perfect place for these type of projects due to its huge swaths of wilderness and some of the most intense sunlight in the world.

The project has a price tag of over $1.1 billion and demonstrates just how far the technology to create renewable energy has come.

The plant’s main structure is almost complete. The next major challenge consists of lifting one of the heaviest pieces of steel ever constructed to the top of the tower. After that, the only thing left to accomplish is to polish the 10,600 solar panel mirrors so they can “beam” sunlight up to the tower. The end result is a solar facility that will provide a baseline energy generation of 110 MW 24/7.  

In describing the project, Roberto Herrera, the business development manager of Abengoa, states that, “The sun and the salt are from Chile. This is one of our selling points – that we provide a stable supply using local resources. This plant is not dependant on imports so there is more security against global price fluctuations and international crises. The marginal costs in Chile are the lowest of any of our power plants … When it is built, we’ll only need 50 maintenance staff … The cost is already at the same level as gas – $120 per kilowatt/hour – and the idea is for it to fall as the technology improves.”

The sun is so powerful in this area of the desert that it can be deadly. In addition to wearing a harness, helmet and boots, and other essentials, visitors are required to wear dark glasses and industrial-strength sunblock for safety. And, despite the intense heat, security guards wear thick uniforms that cover every bit of their skin.

This area of the Atacama desert only experiences two to three cloudy days annually. Therefore, the constant and intense sunlight is attracting an increasing number of solar companies to the region, which is quickly becoming one of the globe’s leading centers of renewable energy.

Yet, the ambitious project may experience postponements due to the company’s filing for creditor protection earlier this year. This is despite the fact that the plant has a 20-year contract to sell the local grid.

Ivan Araneda, general director of Abengoa Solar Chile, notes that, “This will be an iconic project that reduces 840,000 tons of carbon emissions per year. But we have to compete with conventional generation, so we have the challenge of reducing costs to be more competitive. The financing for these facilities is a challenge.”

As Abenoga deals with its financial challenges, it will also have to contend with the Andes mountain range in connecting its cross-border network expansion. But the technology and engineering skills are there. Finance is the last piece of the puzzle.

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