-The Washington Post
On the solar farms of the Atacama Desert, the workers dress like
astronauts. They wear bodysuits and wraparound sunglasses, with thick
canvas headscarves to shield them from the radiation.
The sun is so intense and the air so dry that seemingly nothing
survives. Across vast, rocky wastes blanched of color, there are no
cactuses or other visible signs of life. It’s Mars, with better
The Atacama is well-suited to solar energy production for the same reasons astronomers put high-powered telescopes in northern Chile for the clearest possible Earth-based views of the cosmos.
In nations such as Japan and Germany, which are some of the world
leaders in solar energy production, the sun’s rays are partly diffused
by water molecules floating in the air, even on days when it isn’t
But in the super-dry Atacama, where it virtually never rains, the photons beam straight down.
Put a solar panel beneath them and its like plugging directly into the sun.
At the Finis Terrae solar plant near the tiny town of Maria Elena, more
than 500,000 PV panels blanket the desert. The 160-megawatt plant was
the largest solar installation in Latin America when it went online last
summer, capable of powering nearly 200,000 homes. Since then,
another Chilean plant has surpassed it.
“Compared with the Arabian, Sahara and Australian deserts, the
Atacama Desert has the highest levels of direct normal irradiation, the
key component of the sun’s rays for energy production,” said Salvatore
Bernabei, the head of renewable energies for Latin America at Enel, an
Italian multinational that owns the plant.
The radiation is so intense that no one is really sure how long
standard-issue PV panels — which are designed to last 25 years — will be
able to withstand it. One solar plant here had to replace most of its
exposed cables after six months because the radiation fried their
Another problem solar companies are facing is the desert soil. In the
afternoons, writhing dust devils zigzag across the desert floor,
sprinkling particles onto the panels and reducing their output. Plant
managers try to keep them clean using specially outfitted tractors with
long wiper-arms, but there’s little water available.
Chilean energy officials say these challenges are relatively minor.
The country derives about 6 percent of its energy from solar, but the
potential of the Atacama is so great that Chile could generate all of
its electricity with about 4 percent of the desert’s surface area, if
there were a way to efficiently store and distribute that energy.