Chile, as the host of the world’s largest copper and lithium reserves, is a key player in the debates about a global energy transition. However, the promotion of green hydrogen has become a controversial issue that pits frontline communities and social movements against dominant, corporate-led actors. Despite calls from civil society for an urgent evaluation of the Green Hydrogen Strategy, there has been no review thus far. The potential scale of this plan, coupled with the fact that projects can be developed anywhere with renewable energy, indicates that a strategic environmental assessment should be carried out in accordance with the law. However, the government has instead established an inter-ministerial committee to further promote the strategy.
But what is green hydrogen? What is its impact on communities and ecosystems; and does the strategy to promote a state policy programme for this energy source really contribute to the advancement of a just energy transition?
Faced with these challenges, movements and organisations are calling on the government to commit to an open agenda and debate with the country on the potential for an energy transition that does not happen at the expense of territories and communities.
What is green hydrogen?
Green hydrogen is a form of hydrogen gas that is produced using renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, or hydro power, rather than from fossil fuels like natural gas or coal – this is what makes it ‘green’. It is produced through a process called electrolysis, which involves splitting water molecules into their component parts of hydrogen and oxygen using an electrical current.
Green hydrogen is considered a ‘clean’ energy source because it produces no greenhouse gas emissions during production or use, unlike hydrogen produced from fossil fuels which generates significant emissions. Green hydrogen can be used as an energy source in a variety of applications, including transportation, heating, and electricity generation.
It can be used in a variety of ways, including:
- 1. Energy storage: Hydrogen can be stored in tanks or underground storage facilities, allowing for long-term storage of renewable energy produced from sources like wind and solar power.
- 2. Fuel for transportation: Green hydrogen can be used as a fuel for cars, buses, and other vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells, which convert hydrogen into electricity to power the vehicle.
- 3. Industrial processes: Hydrogen is used in a variety of industrial processes, such as ammonia production for fertilizer and petrochemical manufacturing.
- 4. Power generation: Hydrogen can be burned as a fuel to generate electricity, similar to natural gas.
Producing hydrogen requires demineralised water and a significant amount of energy, which is why renewable energy is used in the process to make it "green." To produce a kilogram of hydrogen, 10 litres of demineralised fresh water are used, highlighting the need for large amounts of energy and resources.
Green hydrogen can provide solutions to transition away from hydrocarbons, but the issue goes beyond technological challenges. Chile’s electricity generation capacity has grown disproportionately, thanks to its green hydrogen strategy, leading to an oversupply of available electricity. While Chile has the highest percentage of renewable energy in Latin America, it is not designed to decarbonize the country’s energy matrix and still relies on coal and diesel for various sectors such as transport, mining, and energy generation.
Unfortunately, the focus of green hydrogen production is on developing a new commodity for export rather than meeting the energy transition needs of Chile. As a result, any potential internal use will be dictated by global market forces, driven by large transnational companies, and may not benefit the country due to its high cost.
Green hydrogen pollution
The current conversation around green hydrogen also doesn’t consider the potential impact on water stress. Green hydrogen production requires lots of electricity and in some cases seawater desalination. Large-scale land occupation is also needed, especially in the case of wind and photovoltaic projects to generate the electricity that will make hydrogen ‘green’.
On several occasions President Piñera announced Chile was going to produce green hydrogen with the lowest production costs to enter the international market and become a "hydrogen power" – green hydrogen, he said, would be more important than mining in Chile.
The problem with this is that, for Chile to be relevant on international markets, it must produce green hydrogen on a gigantic scale that far exceeds the needs of Chile and even Latin America. To reach those levels requires a lot of water and a lot of renewable energy. This will inevitably deepen the impact at the local level compounding the already difficult situation in many local communities. Especially those suffering from the water crisis that Chile has been experiencing for years and which has resulted in more than half of the country’s municipalities declaring water shortages, with many rivers disappearing. This is an extremely serious water situation in a country that is one of the most vulnerable to the conditions of the climate crisis.
Impact on communities
The impact of solar power and wind energy projects on local communities has been a topic of concern and conflict in various regions of Chile, including Bíobio, La Araucanía, and the Mulchén and Los Ángeles sectors. Despite claims that wind turbines are compatible with agricultural activities and people’s livelihoods, the reality is that the installation of these massive infrastructures near people’s homes can have a significant impact on the living conditions of these territories. The construction of wind farms can result in the destruction, removal, and transformation of ecosystems, as well as noise pollution and the displacement of communities. For instance, in the Bío Bío region, the infrastructure built by energy multinational Aes Gener involved the large-scale transformation of land, removing natural barriers that protected riverbanks from flooding, which resulted in widespread flooding of agricultural lands, ruining the corn and wheat fields of several communities.
Similarly, solar farms are often installed on land that has traditionally been used for agriculture or that is rich in biodiversity. To install these solar panels, all the native flora needs to be removed, producing vast wastelands. Social-environmental conflicts related to the environmental licensing and the lack of citizen participation have already emerged in various areas, such as in San Felipe and Los Andes in the Aconcagua region. These massive projects are being developed without adequate or mandated citizen participation, raising concerns about their sustainability.
It is important to note that green hydrogen can also be used to produce other derivatives, such as ammonia for use in the mining industry. This means that green hydrogen projects are not only about generating energy directly but also about producing various other products with different uses.
Where do we go from here?
Currently there are no green hydrogen projects in operation, most are prototype projects and prospective investments. The only project that is more advanced is the Haru Oni project, a large pilot project that will not produce green hydrogen, but will produce synthetic fuel, eco petrol, which uses green hydrogen as an input. However, this eco-fuel, as is the case with all other green hydrogen products and derivatives, will also be taken to Europe to be burned in traditional combustion engines, mainly in Porsche cars.
Which takes us back to the central paradox around green hydrogen – Chile’s renewable energy capacity is being used to produce an energy source destined for parts of the world where it has been defined as a central tenet of the energy transition, with little consideration for Chile’s own energy needs or its potential impacts.
If the government wants to take the energy transition seriously, it must review the green hydrogen strategy. It needs be evaluated from an environmental, territorial, and social perspective. Simply filling our territories with wind or solar power projects is not synonymous with the promotion of a just energy transition for Chile. This is what’s most worrying – there is indeed a set of policies and measures to enable an energy transition in Chile, but bizarrely, these don’t consider the green hydrogen strategy.
The Constitutional Debate – openings for a Just Transition
On 4 September 2022, 61% of Chileans voted via a plebiscite to reject the proposed text of a new Constitution. Despite the setback of the rejected proposed text of a new Constitution, Chile’s social movements are determined to continue their fight for a Constitution that prioritizes social and ecological well-being and justice for all Chileans, as well as for Nature. The rejection was a wake-up call for these movements to redouble their efforts to ensure that the next phase of the process isn’t co-opted by corporate power. Importantly, the environmental justice movement’s demands were well-received in the Constitutional debate, and provisions such as de-privatizing the right to water, slowing down the expanding extractivist frontier, recognizing Nature as a subject of rights and guaranteeing energy as a public good remain popular.
While many territories and communities remain under threat from expanding extractivism, including agroforestry and green hydrogen projects, movements and organizations will continue to accompany and challenge corporate power alongside communities. The undeniable impacts of the climate crisis are impossible to ignore, and the space is still ripe for intervention and elevation of these struggles into the sphere of the new Constitution – which remains the most salient space to challenge the dominant vision of the energy transition being proposed. With determination and persistence, Chile’s social movements can bring about meaningful transformation and create a brighter future for all Chileans and for the planet.