Total solar eclipse in Chile: a brighter outlook for the future?

A total solar eclipse on December 14th left the Chilean south briefly in the dark. Between local indigenous groups and the solar industry, the event was affronted with respect and ingenuity. Vera Dickhoff takes a closer look.

Total solar eclipses are rare at any particular location, as its totality exists only along a narrow path on the Earth’s surface, as traced by the Moon’s full shadow (Public Domain)


Chile’s previous total solar eclipse and the solar industry  
The country’s last total solar eclipse in 2019 was previsioned to cause a decline of around 1.500 MW from photovoltaic systems, equivalent to the energy consumption of approximately half of the Metropolitan region. Later analysis showed that the eclipse had caused a decline of 1.200 MW and by doing so eliminated the power of more than half of the country’s solar farms, which altogether produce about 2 GW of electricity.

This year’s eclipse will be different, and not only because of a pandemic-related decline in darkness-gazing tourists. Where the previous eclipse occurred in the northern Atacama region, home to the country’s desert, this year the total solar eclipse will occur further south. The eclipse’s path of totality, which refers to the moon’s central shadow and provides optimal visibility of the eclipse, stretches across the southern Chilean regions of Los Ríos and Araucanía in the west, and Argentina’s Patagonia region in the east of the South American continent.

To understand a possible different effect of this year’s eclipse, one must consider the country’s solar radiation values. Chile’s highest concentration of Global Horizontal Irradiance (GHI) occurs in the north of the country, where the Atacama desert has among the world’s highest potential for solar energy. Consequently, most photovoltaic plants are located in those regions, which explains last year’s strong energy decline during the eclipse. This year, however, solar farms come prepared as Chilean startup Suncast developed a generation prediction service for the upcoming solar eclipse, which previews the effect on each photovoltaic park.

Constanza Levicán, CEO of Suncast, indicates that “although the date of the eclipse is known, what is relevant for the Solar Industry is to predict how it will affect each photovoltaic park, depending on its geographical location, and with this information, schedule the dispatch to the National Electric System”.

The Chilean summer, which lasts from December to February, usually brings about bright months for solar energy. In November, non-conventional renewable energies contributed 26,8% to the National Electric system, according to the monthly statistics of the Chilean Association of Renewable Energies and Storage (ACERA). With 3.380 MW of photovoltaics installed, solar energy contributed 12,8% to the National Electric System. Considering the even sunnier month of December, this year’s total solar eclipse will therefore result in another decline of photovoltaic energy.

Christian Pieringer, Suncast Artificial Intelligence Researcher, explains: ‘’we made a solar energy estimate for the eclipse of December 14th in six plants […], in which we estimated an average reduced generation of 82%, which could vary depending on the percentage of shadowing at which each [energy] central is subjected.‘’ In order to substitute the loss of energy during the eclipse, alternative sources are of utmost importance. In last year’s eclipse, Chile used reserve capacity based on flexible generation (hydraulic and thermal sources), energy alternatives that could be used this year as well. However, considering increasing decarbonization measures, Pieringer calls both for extended energy storage capacity, especially in small-scale solar generators or those decentralized from the national electricity system, as well as for an increase in wind generation and the incorporation of other sources to the national energy matrix, such as green hydrogen.

The Chilean solar industry comes prepared for the eclipse, and alternative sources will likely guarantee a continued cycle of energy during the event. Yet besides its effect on local tourism and the energy industry, the eclipse has a more profound meaning for others, who have been preparing for the event with the same respect and humility as they have been for thousands of years.

Lan Antü, or when the sun briefly ‘died’            
This year’s eclipse occurs in ancestral Mapuche land, also known as Wallmapu territory. The Mapuche, Chile’s largest group of indigenous peoples, have witnessed many solar eclipses (Lan Antü) and lunar eclipses (Lan Küyen) on their land. To them, the Lan Antü, or total solar eclipse, is understood as the ‘death of the sun’, due to its disappearance mid-day. In line with the great importance that is attributed to the sun, its ‘death’ is seen as a negative event bringing bad omens. Accordingly, they are affronted with great respect, as the Mapuche link full solar eclipses with environmental or social catastrophes. Taking into account last year’s eclipse, the following social uprising in Chile and the global pandemic, this year’s eclipse is awaited with deep respect and humility.

Yet, although the eclipse, or ‘death of the sun, might generally be seen as the announcement of something negative, for some authors and Mapuche generations, the eclipse instead emphasizes changes that should be prepared for. Margarita Canio, co-author of the book ‘Wenumapu, astronomía y cosmología Mapuche’ (2014), explains that “what the younger generations [of Mapuche] have discussed with the old ones, is that the previous eclipse [in 2019] was the negative part and that this December’s eclipse, which follows so close to the last one, will mend everything that is happening on a social level, both locally and globally.’’

Light after dark?
After suffering from human rights violations during the anti-government protests both last and this year, including killings, torture and sexual violence by the Chilean authorities, followed by the health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, one could say a brighter outlook is more than welcome for the country. The Mapuche people have struggled for decades with the reclamation of ancestral land as well as with the recognition of their jurisdictional autonomy and cultural identity. Official tourism sites have now incorporated the Mapuche worldview regarding the eclipse and have published information in Mapudungun, the Mapuche’s language. Nevertheless, the language is still not recognized as an official language of Chile, and the Mapuche continue to encounter discrimination on many levels. With nation-wide energy implications and occurring on ancestral lands, the eclipse offers an opportunity for one to consider indigenous rights and values in Chile whilst gazing at Lan Antü at home through a Livestream.

 

Vera Dickhoff studied politics and law in Münster, Bologna and São Paulo and is currently studying towards her master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Latin American Studies in Berlin. Her research focuses on decentralized renewable energy and transnational climate litigation in Latin America.

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