Tierra Atacama: A place to recharge

21. October 2013 By:  Ian Clover

Located in Chile's stunning Atacama desert, the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa is partly powered by an off-grid solar system installed by Germany's KRAFTWERK Renewable Power Solutions. pv magazine caught up with Kraftwerk's managing director, Karsten Schulte, to discover more about this groundbreaking venture. Read on to enter the competition at the foot of the page.

Karsten Schulte, managing director of KRAFTWERK Renewable Power Solutions.

pv magazine: Could you begin by telling us how the project between KRAFTWERK Renewable Power Solutions and the Tierra Atacama Hotel came about?
Karsten Schulte: When we set up the company we decided we could not just rely on Germany and other European countries, where lots of solar subsidies exist. So our strategy was to explore the international market where solar energy is already competitive without any subsidies, and that’s when we took great interest in Chile. We participated in a business case competition hosted by the Chilean government called Startup Chile, and our PV proposal won.

This was in 2011 and fortunately we very quickly secured our first project.
Soon afterwards my partner and I were skiing in one of Chile’s ski resorts when we got talking to the hotel owner about sustainability and solar PV. He told us about another hotel he owned in the Atacama desert – the driest and sunniest area in the world. We were soon lucky enough to visit and spend a few nights at the hotel, which is when we devised the idea to install a  solar power plant there because, at the time, its energy supply was based on an off-grid diesel generator. With this system running constantly, expensively consuming a lot of diesel, we made a proposal to integrate PV power into the system, which was implemented in July this year. It took a while because we wanted to make sure that we understood the energy demands of the hotel. So we made detailed measurements of the hotel’s load profile over the duration of one year.

pv magazine: What makes the Tierra Atacama Hotel and Spa's PV installation so special?
The heart of the system is an intelligent control unit, the HybridControl, which we jointly developed with Platinum GmbH. The HybridControl provides stable and continuous operation of the grid enabling diesel generators, ensuring that they work side-by-side with the PV system. The system is like having your own mini grid. It is a unique idea for a hotel of this nature to have such a clean fuel-saving solution on a small scale. There are also cost considerations, too.

To achieve high profitability and economic attractiveness, we had to add to the grid-connected diesel system, installing the PV system alongside it without any battery. And then the PV system has to compete against electricity from the diesel generator. But when power from diesel costs $.030 kWh, the PV alternative quickly becomes highly attractive.

pv magazine: What inspired Kraftwerk to get involved with this project? Was it to strengthen your CSR commitments, or are there cost benefits too? When do you envisage a return on investment (ROI)?
The chief intention of our work with the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa is driven primarily by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The philosophy of the hotel is to be close to nature. San Pedro de Atacama is a fantastic place; you’re right in the heart of the Atacama Desert, with huge salt lakes close by, and the hotel guests who visit want to be at one with the surroundings. Hence, the PV installation we have devised fits in perfectly with this philosophy.

The ROI is estimated at between four and five years. We have had to deal with the situation where we talk to people about an off-grid PV solution who say: ‘Yes, but we just undertook this big investment in a diesel generator; it’s two years old, we don’t want to get rid of it.‘ So what we advise is that in the beginning they devise a combination. We say: ‘Use your diesel generator as the facility that’s driving the grid, and just use your PV to reduce your diesel consumption, in the first instance.‘

pv magazine: What has been the initial response to the PV installation from hotel guests?
The installation has been really well received, because it fits perfectly into the hotel’s garden design. Not only that, but guests at the hotel are sophisticated travelers who care about the environment and are looking for hotels with this environmental edge. So in this way, it becomes a competitive marketing advantage for the hotel besides the operational and environmental benefits. Soon, hotel guests will be able to see a live operational dashboard of the PV plant on the hotel website. The installation is discreet, and not right next to any hotel rooms. It was a big issue for us – where to put it? But I think we have developed an ideal solution where the hotel receives only the benefits of the plant.

pv magazine: Do you have any further similar projects in Chile in the pipeline?
We are shortly going to provide off-grid solutions for municipalities, also in the Atacama region of Chile. To do this we will build up a Public Private Partnership (PPP) concept  – it’s a support system from the German government called develoPPP.

Another focus is also to provide grid-connected solutions to customers. Our chief purpose is always to provide a tailored solution. Our very first project was a grid-connected PV plant in Chile for a fruit company. There we analyzed the energy consumption of the site – which lay largely in irrigation – and developed a new irrigation schedule that followed the sun. This enabled us to implement a 300 KW ground-mounted grid-connected PV plant. The major purpose of this plant is to use the energy for self-consumption: it boasts self-consumption rates of more than 90%, and only the excess energy is injected to the grid.
This was our very first project in Chile, and now we have newer projects at MW scale in the pipeline, also in the agricultural business area.

pv magazine: Do you envisage a strong future for further similar collaborations between the hospitality industry and the solar industry?
We hope so. The Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) met with us at the Intersolar Show in Munich and now they want to implement this concept to hotels in Egypt, where the government has recently cut subsidies for diesel and electricity. This means the country’s hotels – which all have their own diesel-powered off-grid solutions – are faced with rising costs. So there is an opportunity there.

We were also at Intersolar Brazil and received extremely positive feedback on this solution. In Brazil, the production facilities fully rely on off-grid solutions too. For the hospitality industry it is about providing energy to municipalities, which is also an important issue for the mining industry and, in some cases, for agriculture too, especially in areas like irrigation.

So I think there is a strong opportunity for the industries to collaborate more closely. For many reasons, not least that it’s always a pleasant experience to be able to visit some of the fantastic places in which these hotels are located!

About Kraftwerk and the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa
Specialists in bespoke PV systems, KRAFTWERK Renewable Power Solutions has been active in Chile since 2010. Headquartered in Weingarten, Germany, Kraftwerk has brought its innovative expertise to the luxurious Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, located in the sunniest place on earth – Chile’s Atacama Desert. The hotel’s 96 solar modules are expected to produce 46,000 kWh of solar power annually, with the heart of the system controlled by HybridControl – which ensures both generators, (diesel and PV) work side-by-side. Kraftwerk have developed specialized PV systems for agriculture and the hospitality industry, and following the announcement that the National Bank of Egypt is to pledge loans to help luxury hotels in Egypt adopt renewable power, the company hopes to bring its innovation to some of Egypt’s leading hotels.

The Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa has quickly become a favored destination of choice for conscientious travelers keen on exploring the wondrous terrain of Chile’s Atacama desert. Guests can enjoy daily excursions on foot, horseback or by bike, or simply relax in the hotel’s lush gardens, taking in a massage, spa day or dip in the pool.

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