By Fabiola Ortiz
SAO PAULO, July 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deep in northern Chile's Atacama Desert, a remote community of 6,000 people is preparing to host the country's largest wind power plant.
The residents of Freirina commune, on the coast of Huasco province, 700 km (435 miles) from the capital Santiago, have traditionally made a living from mining, olive farming, fishing and collecting seaweed.
The new wind project marks a turning point for all Freirina's families, according to 35-year-old mayor Cesar Orellana, a clean-energy enthusiast.
"Having an important wind plant so close to us inspires everyone with positive expectations," said the Socialist Party politician, who was born and raised in the isolated commune. "The energy Freirina wants is clean."
Near Huasco port, a privately run coal-fired thermoelectric power plant spills pollution into the air - which the mayor referred to as a "nuisance".
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest, sunniest and least populated places on Earth, offering economic opportunities to harness renewable energy resources.
The San Juan wind project, located in Chañaral de Aceituno, 60 km south of Huasco port, is being developed by Latin America Power, a Chilean company, backed by Brazilian investment.
The first wind turbines are due to start functioning in October, with an initial capacity of 10 megawatts (MW).
Company spokesman Giovanni Vinciprova said all 56 turbines should be operating by February 2017, generating 185 MW - enough to power a city of 900,000 inhabitants. If all goes to plan, the $81-million wind plant will be Chile's largest.
Construction work began on the plant in March 2015, but engineers, biologists and social workers started to make contact with community leaders and hundreds of households in early 2014.
"There are rural communities (here) who live in precarious conditions without access to energy, water or any means of transport," said Vinciprova.
And Freirina's history of resistance against large companies meant residents were initially suspicious of the new wind power initiative.
A few years ago, they mobilised against a pig farm and pork plant, one of Latin America's biggest meat-processing sites, owned by Chilean farm Agrosuper, due to the unpleasant smells it emitted.
In May 2012, authorities declared a health alert in the area and ordered the plant, which kept half a million pigs, to close temporarily. It then shut down permanently, leaving behind hundreds of rotten dead animals that caused health and environmental problems.
The experience left residents fiercely opposed to similar large-scale investments in their town, mayor Orellana said. So the wind power company had to make a careful effort to overcome negative sentiment towards investors.
Gradually, the prospect of job creation and funding for community projects such as paving roads and bringing solar power to isolated fishing villages started changing local minds.
A fund set up by the wind developer has already invested $60,000 in projects for Freirina, with a further $100,000 due to be spent in the second half of the year.
"At the beginning it was a challenge, but we've had a positive experience with local communities," said Vinciprova. "We're taking into account (their) demands on water and telecommunications. The families are the ones who know their needs."
Chile currently relies on fossil fuels - coal, petroleum and natural gas - for almost half its electrical power generation.
The other half comes from hydropower plants that have suffered from a lack of rainfall linked to the El Niño weather phenomenon which ended in May. This has highlighted the economic advantages of investing in alternative clean energy sources, including wind and solar.
Luis Vargas, director of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Chile University, said the country's private sector is now investing aggressively in renewables.
The volume of wind capacity under construction jumped from 168 MW in late 2014 to around 400 MW in early 2016, for example.
"We took advantage of learning from technology advances worldwide that now have highly competitive prices," the researcher said. "Investing in renewables has become profitable in Chile."
Wind still generates only 4 percent of the nation's electricity, but that could rise to one third by mid-century, Vargas predicted.
Chile has pledged to achieve at least a 70 percent share of renewables in its electrical power generation by 2050.
The country's new long-term energy policy includes hydropower but puts more emphasis on solar and wind, complemented by geothermal, biomass and ocean energy.
While solar is still considered a non-conventional source of energy, at the beginning of the year Chile was generating 1,103 MW of solar power, according to the National Centre for Innovation and Promotion of Sustainable Energy (CIFES).
The Atacama Desert will also be home to the Copiapó solar thermal power project, which is expected to cost $2 billion and begin operating in 2019 with a capacity of 260 MW.
"Some researchers believe that around 2050 the country might be 100 percent renewable. Fossil fuels are gradually reducing their share," Vargas said.
Projections point to wind potential in Chile of 15,000 MW, equivalent to the country's entire electrical power generation capacity today, he noted.
"Wind potential could be even higher - we could harness this resource not only on the coastline but also along the Andes (mountains)," he said.
(Reporting by Fabíola Ortiz; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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