Students Seek Alternative Energy Source in Chile

 Isabelle Cannell ’11 and Natalie Elking '12
Isabelle Cannell ’11 and Natalie Elking '12
The Patagonia region of Chile has some of the highest wind potentials in the world, peaking at nearly 200,000 megawatts of power and sweeping by at five or 10 meters per second. Natalie Elking ’12 and Isabelle Cannell ’11 began to develop an interest in this obvious but overlooked source of energy after writing a group paper on what they believed was the proper approach to wilderness conservation in Patagonia. J. W. Johnson Family Professor of Geosciences Eugene Domack taught the course, and expressed interest in editing their paper and trying to get it published. As the topic moved more into the realm of wind and tidal power issues, Domack suggested a trip to Chile to investigate the matter. Elking and Cannell agreed, and enthusiastically accompanied him this past May. 

The students met with Domack in the city of Punta Arenas, in hopes that they could determine why Chile had not yet exploited this clean energy source. “The wind potential alone could power the whole region,” Elking explained. “The initial costs may be more expensive, but eventually the citizens of Patagonian Chile would spend much less than they currently are with gas.” 

So why aren’t Chileans taking advantage of such an appealing energy source? Elking and Cannell set out this summer to observe the socioeconomic conditions and knowledge of energy in the region, and how that might affect the people’s stance on the issue. More importantly, their goal was to understand the limitations of wind power and propose solutions to those barriers. 

Domack and the students met with Dr. Marilin Lobos Goic, director of the American Corner, at the University of Magallanes on May 29. The American Corner in Punta Arenas is one of many “corners” around the world that allow international citizens to view exhibitions, posters, and items depicting American culture. It also sponsors guest speakers, like Domack, who lectured on wind power there during the trip.
Elking and Cannell met with other citizens and asked them questions to find out how they might react to the idea of renewable energy. They also thought it would be valuable to study the surrounding geological features, like the Torres del Paine National Park. “It was the most breath-taking experience of my life,” Elking raved. “We saw glaciers, mountains, lakes, and so much unique flora and fauna.” “I think we were both sure at this point that we hoped to come back to Patagonia,” Cannell said. 

Their research spans both geological and environmental discourses. While some may think it focuses on just geoscience, others will note that their findings may help clarify the socioeconomic and environmental status of Chilean Patagonia. They saw this through a demonstration against rising gasoline prices – a knowledge of geology could have helped these people get rid of their economic woes. The protest was against a proposed contract between the two major oil companies in Chile that would lead to escalating electricity prices. The organizer of the rally was El Comité Para la Defensa de Magallanes (CODEMA), a committee which seeks to raise awareness and encourage others to take a stand against increased drilling. “This was my favorite part of the trip because of all of the excitement throughout the city, with loud music being blared and continuous announcements,” said Elking. 

They also came upon a satisfying surprise. En route back to the city from a failed quest to find a coal mine, Domack and the students took one last turn in their path. It was then that they discovered a beautiful geological park with a waterfall, geological outcrops, coal, fossilized bivalves (marine mollusks), as well as perfect views of the city and the Strait of Magellan. Their unrelenting search ended in accidental success. 

In terms of overall success, however, they are still in the process of explaining Patagonia’s ignorance of wind power. It is an important project to pursue, because with the proper education, Chileans could avoid the environmental destruction that so many countries have faced as a result of nonrenewable resources. They would certainly regret not taking the necessary steps. 

Cannell became interested in environmental studies, her major, when she was in high school. She went to a high school semester program called The Island School, which is located on an almost entirely sustainable campus. Additionally, she was raised in a town surrounded by natural forest land. She has grown up with the mentality that people should conserve and protect nature. 

“It would also be incredible to see a country like Chile set an example for other countries,” she said.

Elking is a graduate of Joradan-Elbridge Central High School
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