A group working to block the construction of hydroelectric dams on two pristine rivers in southern Chile is bringing Chilean students to the American West this week, where they’ll see the ecological impact of dams firsthand.
The 10 students, all kayakers between the ages of 14 and 20, will be in Aspen on Friday evening to take part in a discussion of the proposed dam — and alternatives to hydroelectric power — at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES).
The event will feature some heavy hitters in the realm of energy policy, including Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, state Sen. Gail Schwartz, and Antonio Horvath, a Chilean senator from the Patagonia region where the dams are slated to be built.
Over the weekend, the students will study river ecology and renewable energy with several Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit groups, before heading west for a tour of the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona and a 290-mile river trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
“A lot of these kids have never seen a dam before in their lives,” said Weston Boyles, a 26-year-old Aspen native who founded Rios to Rivers, the group organizing the Chilean students’ trip. “I think that’s one of the best ways to protect a place, to fall in love with it through a sport and become a conservationist.”
The Chilean students’ itinerary represents the second leg of an exchange program that Boyles organized; in March, he took student kayakers from Carbondale’s Colorado Rocky Mountain School to Chile, to run rivers there and learn about the threat of dams.
Boyles learned about southern Chile’s proposed dams when he traveled there in 2011 to make a film about a small Patagonian kayaking school called Los Escualos (the sharks).
Students at the school learn to kayak on the Baker River, one of two rivers where the Chilean energy company HidroAysén hopes to build five hydroelectric dams. (The nearby Pascua River is also threatened.)
The energy company is aiming to construct transmission lines to send power from the dams northward, to the capital city of Santiago and mining operations in the northern Andes Mountains.
The Chilean Supreme Court has approved the dams, but not the transmission lines. Boyles said the project is particularly contentious in Chile because many Chileans believe it could open a mostly undeveloped swath of Patagonia up to industrial activity.
“The reason there’s so much fighting over this is that if the dams are built it opens up the whole region to extractive industries and future development,” Boyles said.
Mark Harvey, a native Aspenite and part-time resident of southern Chile (editor’s note: Mark Harvey is also the writer’s uncle) is moderating Friday’s discussion at ACES. He said people are concerned about the proposed dams spurring increased development in Patagonia because they could make cheap electricity available to any industry hoping to set up shop in the region.
“Any time you lower the cost of energy like that regionally or nationally, it does open the doors for other extractive industries,” he said.
At Friday’s discussion, Harvey said he plans to ask Lovins about the Chilean potential for renewable energy sources other than hydroelectric power.
Lovins visited the country recently to advise its leaders on improvements to their energy system, and he came away with a glowing view of its renewable potential.
“Chile has the richest renewable-opportunity portfolio of any country on earth to my knowledge,” Lovins wrote in an email message forwarded to the Daily News, referencing expansive wind and solar potential. “[It has] some of the richest efficiency opportunities too, but lacks the institutional structures/rules needed to capture them.”
Harvey said he’ll also talk with Schwartz and Horvath on Friday about the concept of “net metering,” which allows private citizens to sell electricity generated from their own renewable energy systems back to utilities.
Both senators have supported legislation making it mandatory for utilities to participate in net metering.
Yet Boyles said he hopes the Chilean students he’s bringing to Aspen will take home more than policy recommendations, and that they’ll return to Chile determined to protect wild rivers.
The current Chilean situation, he said, echoes one that played out in Arizona’s Grand Canyon in the 1960s, when two dams were proposed there. Despite the fact that those dams had already won congressional approval, the Sierra Club took out ads in the New York Times opposing them, and asking “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get closer to the ceiling?” Public outrage resulted, and the dams were ultimately scrapped.
“The Grand Canyon is of equal beauty to the Baker and Pascua rivers, and they deserve equal protection,” said Boyles.