Business & Economy

Chilean city pioneers solar-powered river transit

By Maria M. Mur

Valdivia, Chile, Jul 15 (EFE).- Located at the confluence of three rivers, this city in southern Chile is blazing a trail for Latin America with a river-borne transit service powered by energy from the sun.

Since February 2021, three boats equipped with solar panels and electric motors have been carrying commuters up and down the Valdivia River.

“This project is unique in Latin America for two reasons: because it’s a type of public transport, understanding that the river is in itself a route option; and because its energy source is photovoltaic solar,” Jean Pierre Ugarte, an official with Chile’s Transport and Telecommunications Ministry, told Efe in Valdivia, capital of the Los Rios region.

While moving people and cargo by river is not unknown in Latin America, the existing services “are neither sustainable nor regulated with state rates,” Ugarte said, adding that the Valdivia model can be replicated on other Chilean coastal areas such as Valparaiso or Chiloe.

The rivers were central to the life of Valdivia from its founding in 1552 until May 22, 1960, when the city was virtually destroyed by the most powerful earthquake on record, a magnitude-9.5 temblor whose effects, in the form of tsunamis, were felt as far away as Hawaii and Japan.

The Puerto Solar initiative arose from an alliance between the municipal government and the business community that was meant to restore the role of the river in Valdivia, entrepreneur Valeria Preller – the city’s partner in the venture – told Efe.

“We want to bring the citizens back to the river, in civic coexistance and protecting the environment. The river is part of the pride and the identity of the city,” she said.

Despite its modest population of around 150,000, Valdivia is plagued with traffic congestion and the possibilities of building new roads are limited by geography and other factors.

At rush hour, when travel times can increase by up to 300 percent, “this alternative (Puerto Solar) turns out to be the fastest, along with bicycle and walking, all of them sustainable,” Ugarte said.

The three boats, each capable of carrying 15 people, transport 3,000 passengers a month on average and the figure rises to 4,500 during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

The service currently picks up and drops off passengers at six stops, but expects to add two more in the near future. The normal fare is 800 pesos (80 cents), dropping to 400 pesos for senior citizens and 250 pesos for students.

Transportation accounts for more than 37 percent of energy consumption in Chile and most of that energy comes from imported fossil fuels.

The government has projected that switching to electric vehicles will contribute nearly 20 percent to the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions needed to meet Chile’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

“The boats don’t generate acoustic or environmental pollution. Their only carbon footprint occurs in their construction,” Preller pointed out.

Claudio Vasquez, head of public transportation in Los Rios, said that he sees the immediate challenge as getting people to view the river transit as viable for commuting to work or school.

“Who,” he asked rhetorically, “will not prefer to spend 10 minutes traveling on the river, looking at the city, to being in the middle of a traffic jam on a highway?” EFE mmm/dr

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