Repair work at the Cerro Dominador concentrated solar power plant, which will be stopped throughout 2024

After cracks were detected in two hot salt tanks, the contractor of the mega solar thermal plant is working on the reconstruction of these facilities. This agreement is expected to be closed to have an estimated return date. It was in June 2021 when the Cerro Dominador project, located in the Antofagasta Region, was inaugurated, being the first Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plant in Latin America. This, after six years of construction between 2014 and 2020. However, the last time it continuously injected energy into the system was in May 2023, revealing problems that have not yet been resolved.

The initiative, today managed by the Brookfield fund, involves an investment of US$1.4 billion and aims to generate energy equivalent to supplying approximately 380,000 homes. With a capacity of 210 MW, it combines a 100 MW photovoltaic plant plus a 110 MW solar thermal plant. And while its conventional photovoltaic plant has continued to inject energy into the system, the Cerro Dominador solar thermal plant is currently not in operation, as a specific part of the power island is in the process of repair.

The problem in question would have been gradual, since two tanks of hot salts began to have cracks in the walls and floor. But, despite the repairs, after working it then leaked again. Then, only one tank was left running, but then the other one cracked. Thus, they carried out root cause analyzes to determine the origin of the problems, the results of which are awaiting.

In this way, a quick repair as intended until now would not be possible, so all that remains is to rebuild.

The project contractor has a tender underway in which he seeks to recruit the company that will provide the technology for the new ponds, and another firm that will have to carry out the reconstruction of the infrastructure.

At this time, repairs have already begun regarding the dismantling of the old tanks and work is also being done in other sectors of the plant, carrying out maintenance taking advantage of the downtime to improve the efficiency of the installation and ensure correct operation. Meanwhile, construction of the new hot salt tanks is expected to begin in the coming weeks.

When consulted, Pablo Cavallaro, director of legal and public affairs at Cerro Dominador, acknowledges that it is very complex to establish a date regarding the return of operations, and that “it is also difficult” for it to happen this year. This, because – he explains – “Cerro Dominador hopes to close the agreement with the contractor and thus have an estimated date to operate again.”

Cavallaro acknowledges that what happened was not within the schedule: “You could foresee what was going to happen, but not so quickly. These are things that happen in these projects.”

He added that they have dedicated this time to studying the causes of the failure and – he emphasizes – “now in the reconstruction there are all the lessons learned that we are going to adopt so that this does not happen again.”

In communications to the Electrical Coordinator, on June 2 of last year, Cerro Dominador CSP S.A. requested the declaration in presence for the Concentrating Solar Power Cerro Dominador plant for a period of 35 days between May 19 and June 22 of last year. However, in a last letter, dated February 2 of this year, the period was requested to be extended, because the repair work on the pond that presented the failure has lasted longer than expected. There they specified that the new scheduled date for the completion of repairs and start of synchronization of the Cerro Dominador CSP plant is October 11 of this year.

“With the aforementioned, we ask that Coordinator to please extend the declaration period in presence until Friday, October 11, 2024, the date on which we hope to synchronize the plant again. It is worth mentioning that this period could be extended if the failure is not completely resolved before said date. In this case, we will send an update of this document, indicating the new expected period of correction of the failure,” it is detailed.
And, although the plant is not fully operational, the workers continue their work. This, since there is a preservation plan because plants of this type are designed to work continuously. “If they don’t work continuously they start to deteriorate. So, the fact that it is not generating means that certain systems can deteriorate, if we do not preserve them,” says Cavallaro, who adds that this is basically done as if the plant were being generated.

Asked if these difficulties in any way put technology in check, Cavallaro is emphatic: “We believe not. We still believe to death in this technology. If we really want to remove coal, the plants that generate CO2 from the system, which is something that all countries should be thinking about, Chile in particular, especially in certain areas, and we start to determine which technologies have the capacity to replace necessary base energy, there are not many.”

And he adds that “today we are dedicated to finishing this plant and making it work.”