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Chile’s whirlwind energy transition leaves workers stranded

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Four of the nine coal-fired power plants that Chile has shuttered since 2019 were situated in Tocopilla, an industrial town wedged between the deep blue Pacific ocean and arid mountains of the Atacama desert
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Vultures soar above the mining town of Tocopilla, where Chile’s dizzying transition away from coal-fueled energy has left dozens of workers idle and unsure of their future.

“It’s like when you are a little old man just waiting for the day you die,” said Pedro Castillo, 62, who still goes to work every day as a crane operator at the port, awaiting news on his future after the town’s coal industry began to shut down.

Four of the nine coal-fired power plant units that Chile has shuttered since 2019 were situated in Tocopilla, an industrial town wedged between the deep blue Pacific Ocean and arid mountains of the Atacama desert.

That year, Chile, flush in solar and wind energy, vowed to wind up operations of 28 coal plant units by 2040 as part of efforts to leave behind the planet-harming fossil fuel.

President Gabriel Boric, who was elected in 2021, added the goal of reaching 80 percent of renewable energies by 2030.

According to the World Resources Institute, Chile, along with Greece and the United Kingdom, are among the ten countries which have most rapidly cut off coal-fueled electricity.

For the first time, the world pledged to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels at the UN’s COP28 climate summit in December.

In Chile, the companies that run the power plants provide support for their employees when they close down, but that does not include hundreds of sub-contractors or indirect jobs that depend on the industry.

For the around fifty people working in a coal plant, there are 150 subcontracted workers and 450 indirect jobs, said Alejandro Ochoa, who deals with environmental issues for the country’s most powerful union, the Workers’ United Center of Chile (CUT).

“That leaves 600 workers excluded” from support measures, he said.

– No support, retraining, or severance –

The crane operator Castillo, who has held the job for four decades, is one of around 60 people still working at the Tocopilla port where coal used to be brought in to power the plants, and where activity has ground almost to a halt.

They are employed by a company sub-contracted by French utility giant Engie — who owns the two power plants that have since stopped operating in the town of 25,000 residents.

Engie has shifted its focus to wind and solar plants that are being built in Chile at a rapid pace.

Only one coal-fired plant, owned by American group AES, is still running in the town, but is set to shut in March.

“We are leaving but without even knowing in what condition,” said Juan Hidalgo, 48, on his final day as quay manager at the port, where he has worked from contract to contract over 15 years.

“No retraining, no relocation, no severance pay, no retirement plan,” he reels off his list of grievances, not far from fishermen casting their lines under the gaze of red-headed vultures.

After the closure of its plants, Engie let go of around 100 workers, a third of whom accepted an early retirement plan, while another third was retrained for other jobs and the rest were considered voluntary departures.

The group said it was “conscious” of the “social repercussions” of letting go of its coal businesses, in a comment to AFP.

“The problem in Chile with the (energy) transition is that of sub-contracting,” said the CUT union’s Ochoa.

“Companies take care of their workers” and manage the decarbonization process with little government planning, he said.

“Public policies arrive late.”

– Don’t ‘leave people behind’ –

During a recent meeting with journalists in Santiago, Energy Minister Diego Pardow acknowledged the challenges and said there was a plan for a “fair socio-ecological transition” in Tocopilla.

This included plans to revitalize the town, aid workers in finding other jobs, or boosting the tourism sector.

Meanwhile, Engie’s director general for Chile, Rosaline Corinthien, said there were plans to reconvert its land, after pulling down one plant, with one still to go.

The Chilean energy company Colbun, which has not announced a closure date for its only coal-fired power plant in the country, south of Santiago, is evaluating “the possibility of using other types of fuel” for its power plant like hydrogen or wood pellets.

“Everything that is good for the planet is good but let’s not leave people behind,” said the crane operator Pedro Castillo.

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In Brazil, hopes to use AI to save wildlife from roadkill fate

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Some 475 million vertebrate animals die on Brazilian roads every year
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In Brazil, where about 16 wild animals become roadkill every second, a computer scientist has come up with a futuristic solution to this everyday problem: using AI to alert drivers to their presence.

Direct strikes on the vast South American country’s extensive road network are the top threat to numerous species, forced to live in ever-closer proximity with humans.

According to the Brazilian Center for Road Ecology (CBEE), some 475 million vertebrate animals die on the road every year — mostly smaller species such as capybaras, armadillos and possums.

“It is the biggest direct impact on wildlife today in Brazil,” CBEE coordinator Alex Bager told AFP.

Shocked by the carnage in the world’s most biodiverse country, computer science student Gabriel Souto Ferrante sprung into action.

The 25-year-old started by identifying the five medium- and large-sized species most likely to fall victim to traffic accidents: the puma, the giant anteater, the tapir, the maned wolf and the jaguarundi, a type of wild cat.

Souto, who is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), then created a database with thousands of images of these animals, and trained an AI model to recognize them in real time.

Numerous tests followed, and were successful, according to the results of his efforts recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Souto collaborated with the USP Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences.

For the project to become a reality, Souto said scientists would need “support from the companies that manage the roads,” including access to traffic cameras and “edge computing” devices — hardware that can relay a real-time warning to drivers like some navigation apps do.

There would also need to be input from the road concession companies, “to remove the animal or capture it,” he told AFP.

It is hoped the technology, by reducing wildlife strikes, will also save human lives.

– ‘More roads, more vehicles’- 

Bager said a variety of other strategies to stop the bloodshed on Brazilian roads have failed.

Signage warning drivers to be on the lookout for crossing animals have little influence, he told AFP, leading to a mere three-percent reduction in speed on average.

There are also so-called fauna bridges and tunnels meant to get animals safely from one side of the road to the other, and fences to keep them in — all insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem, according to Bager.

In 2014, he created an app called Urubu with other ecologists, to which thousands of users contributed information, allowing for the identification of roadkill hotspots.

The project helped to create public awareness and even inspired a bill on safe animal crossing and circulation, which is awaiting a vote in Congress. 

A lack of money saw the app being shut down last year, but Bager is intent on having it reactivated.

“We have more and more roads, more vehicles and a number of roadkill animals that likely continues to grow,” he said.

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Honda to build major EV plant in Canada: govt source

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Honda hopes to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040, with a goal of going carbon-neutral in its own operations by 2050
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Japanese auto giant Honda will open an electric vehicle plant in eastern Canada, a Canadian government source familiar with the multibillion-dollar project told AFP on Monday.

The federal government as well as the province of Ontario, where the plant will be built, will both provide some financial incentives for the deal, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official announcement is due Thursday, though Ontario premier Doug Ford hinted at the deal on Monday.

“This week, we’ve landed a new deal. It will be the largest deal in Canadian history. It’ll be double the size of Volkswagen,” he said, referring to a battery plant announced last year, for which the German automaker pledged Can$7 billion (US$5 billion) in investment.

Canada in recent years has been positioning itself as an attractive destination for electric vehicle investment, touting tax incentives, renewable energy access and its rare mineral deposits.

The Honda plant, to be built an hour outside Toronto, in Alliston, will also produce electric-vehicle batteries, joining existing Volkswagen and Stellantis battery plants.

In January, when news of the deal first bubbled up in the Japanese press, the Nikkei newspaper estimated it would be worth Can$14 billion — numbers backed up by Canadian officials recently.

In the federal budget announced last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced a new business tax credit, granting companies a 10 percent rebate on construction costs for new buildings used in key segments of the electric vehicle supply chain.

Canada’s strategy follows that of the neighboring United States, whose Inflation Reduction Act has provided a host of incentives for green industry.

Honda hopes to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040, with a goal of going carbon-neutral in its own operations by 2050.

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Denmark launches its biggest offshore wind farm tender

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Denmark's offshore wind parks currently generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity
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The Danish Energy Agency on Monday launched its biggest tender for the construction of offshore wind farms, aimed at producing six gigawatts by 2030 — more than double Denmark’s current capacity.

Offshore wind is one of the major sources of green energy that Europe is counting on to decarbonise electricity production and reach its 2050 target of net zero carbon production, but it remains far off the pace needed to hit its targets.

Denmark’s offshore wind parks currently generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity, with another one GW due in 2027.

The tender covers six sites in four zones in Danish waters: North Sea I, Kattegat, Kriegers Flak II and Hesselo.

“We are pleased that we can now offer the largest offshore wind tender in Denmark to date. This is a massive investment in the green transition,”  Kristoffer Bottzauw, head of the Danish Energy Agency, said in a statement.

Investment in offshore wind plummeted in Europe in 2022 due to supply chain problems, high interest rates and a jump in prices of raw materials, before bouncing back in 2023.

A record 4.2 gigawatts was installed in Europe last year, when a record 30 billion euros in new projects were approved, the trade association WindEurope said in January.

It said it was optimistic about the future of offshore wind in Europe, expecting new offshore wind capacity of around five gigawatts per year for the next three years.

However, it noted that that was still far short of what is needed if Europe wants to hit its 2030 target of 111 gigawatts of offshore wind installed capacity, with less than 20 gigawatts installed at the end of 2023.

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