The multibillion-dollar HidroAysén project has been given the final green light to build five hydroelectric dams in an untouched area of Chilean Patagonia. HidroAysén proposes to dam up two rivers at five locations, inundating 14,000 acres of wilderness to produce 2,750 megawatts of energy by 2020. The argument is a familiar one coming from a developing country: Chile needs cheap energy in order to grow.

The decision has been met with widespread disapproval from citizens. According to a poll by La Tercera, one of Chile’s largest newspapers, 74 percent of Chileans “reject the hydroelectric project.”

HidroAysén proposes to build dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in southern Chile, in Aysén state. The two glacier-fed rivers roar through a remote piece of Patagonia that abuts several national parks, accessible from points north by ferry and by road over the Andes from Argentina.

“This project destroys all of Patagonia,” insists Rodrigo Pizarro, the former director of TerrAm, a Chilean NGO focused on sustainable development. “It’s like virginity. You can only lose it once,” said Pizarro, adding that former dictator Augusto Pinochet wasn’t protecting Chile’s environment when he signed over the water rights to the private energy industry at the end of his reign.

Pizarro is now a graduate student in food security and the environment at Stanford University, where he studies conservation policies in Latin America. He warns that once these floodgates are opened, there is no stopping energy companies from exploiting Patagonia for its resources. He says Chile should be more aggressively pursuing wind, solar and geothermal electricity generation because of how well-suited the country is to these.

In fact, Spanish-owned Solarpack is currently building a 1 megawatt solar farm in northern Chile that will power a nearby copper mine (owned by Codelco with which it is financing the project). It is among the first industrial scale solar farms in South America, says Jon Segovia, Solarpack’s director in Chile. Along with California’s Mojave desert and the Sahara, Chile’s Atacama desert has the world’s highest levels of solar radiation, an advantage that Segovia says will allow Solarpack’s farm to operate much more efficiently than it would anywhere else.

“Chile needs long-term vision that includes this kind of energy,” said Segovia. He admits that Chile also needs cheap energy fast and that because of this, HidroAysén — which will produce almost 3,000 times the energy his solar farm will — is a necessary evil. But this isn’t to say solar can’t compete with non-renewable utilities: construction begins today on a solar thermal farm near Blythe, California that will produce a little more than 1,000 megawatts once completed.

Chile depends on dammed-up rivers for 20 percent of its energy, according to the country’s national energy commission’s figures from 2008. Most of what Chile consumes for energy is oil, of which 99 percent is imported. HidroAysén, a joint venture of Colbún and Endesa Chile (which Endesa Spain indirectly controls), views this as a reason to pursue hydroelectricity domestically.

Earlier this month, the Aysén state commission charged with weighing the HidroAysén’s environmental effects voted almost unanimously to construct the dams, with 11 of 12 delegates voting in the project’s favor. The approval was accompanied by the commission’s requests for reforestation, discounted power for local municipalities, compensation for relocated families and an independent environmental audit at each stage of construction.

What remains, however, is the approval to construct a transmission line to carry the Patagonian energy up to Santiago and the northern regions (where 90 percent of the Chilean population lives and the mining industry operates). This may prove to be the project’s Achilles’ heel. The transmission line must cross nine Chilean states and cut a 2,000-kilometer gash that will zigzag around about a dozen national parks. Each state must approve the construction and representatives will have to weigh the political cost of voting for the line’s approval.

HidroAysén officials expect to receive a decision by the end of this year and begin construction by 2014. Although company officials have said they won’t begin construction until the transmission line is approved, they would be breaking no laws by breaking ground and thus rendering the transmission line’s approval moot, says Pizarro. This may be a lose-lose waiting game for environmental protection advocates.