High-altitude renewables: why harsh climates offer strong opportunities for energy production

By Ross Phillips | September 9, 2019

With the increasing development of mountainous regions for the purposes of mining and urbanization, there is a growing pressure for organizations to identify cost-effective and reliable sources of energy. Take gold and lithium extraction, for example. These valuable resources are drawing producers to Argentina, Chile, and Peru, where some resources are located at elevations higher than 4,000 meters above sea level.

The harsh climate and remoteness of these regions can pose a significant challenge when it comes to sourcing the energy required to operate project facilities. Conversely, the climate in these regions—mainly the strong winds and intense sun—can prove to be a valuable resource for renewable power. Notably, strong wind resources have been found in Patagonia and Tibet, while the Andes have some of the highest solar irradiation on the planet.

But there are challenges, challenges like the effect of altitude on systems performance, for example. In harsher climates, decreased air density weakens wind resources, and electrical systems need to be derated due to the reduced dielectric strength of the air (~20 percent reduction at 3,000 meters above sea level). In addition, the reduced air density can pose a challenge for heat dissipation.

Nevertheless, there are ways to mitigate these issues. Selecting equipment that utilizes solid or liquid insulation media, and operating larger equipment at lower voltages can help reduce the risk of electrical faults and equipment damage, while forced convection can be implemented for heat-sensitive systems to reduce performance degradation caused by overheating.

Through efficient management by way of appropriate equipment selection and system design, there is considerable potential for renewables to mitigate fossil fuel consumption, while providing a clean and reliable source of energy for mountainous regions. A source that you may find is also much more cost-effective than importing energy by trucks, pipelines, or transmission lines.