Using the sun’s energy to observe the stars

Published on Friday, 26 August 2016

“The Sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the Universe to do.”

These were the words pronounced by Galileo Galilei, the father of modern science and astronomical observation, more than four centuries ago to express his fascination with the immense power of the Star that rules the solar system, feeding the Earth with its heat.

Galileo probably didn’t imagine that science and technology would one day allow man to transform the Sun’s generosity into energy to observe the stars.

This is precisely what is happening in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where Enel’s subsidiary Enel Green Power Chile is building an innovative photovoltaic plant to power the instruments and powerful telescopes of the Astronomical Observatory in La Silla, owned by ESO – The European Southern Observatory.

The construction of the 1.72 MW photovoltaic park began last February near the town of La Higuerra, 600 kilometers north of Santiago, in the Coquimbo region. Once completed, the plant – which is located about 1,800 meters above sea level – will produce 4.75 GWh of electricity per year, enough to meet more than 50 percent of the observatory’s annual power consumption and avoiding the emission of over 2,000 tonnes of CO2.

The La Silla Project will be the first facility to combine and test a mix of new technologies for the production of photovoltaic energy. In a video, EGP Chile’s project manager Rodrigo Ponce explained that the plant will be the first industrial sized solar-powered facility to combine bifacial photovoltaic modules with smart and traditional modules. The La Silla Project will test the performance of these innovative panels, which should be able to increase generation capacity by 5-10 percent, compared to a traditional photovoltaic plant of the same size.

The video portrays the extraordinary bond between the desert’s arid colours, the observatory’s facilities and photovoltaic modules, giving life to a landscape lost in time and space.

ESO’s Site Manager Ivo Saviane highlighted the most fascinating aspect of the project: “There is a lot of natural light all year round in the desert, making it the best place for astronomical observation, as well as for the production of solar energy.”

The Atacama Desert is considered to be an astronomical paradise, due to the absence of light pollution and the darkness of the location, allowing for the best possible observation of the Milky Way. Similarly, its powerful radiation during the daytime make it the perfect place to test new technologies for the production of clean solar energy.

The continuous search for innovation brings us increasingly closer to science, through solar generation.