Atlas recognizes the development of renewable technologies in Latin America

Alfredo Solar, general manager of Atlas Renewable Energy in Chile, discusses the value startups bring to Latin America’s renewable energy industry.

Q. What value do startups provide to Atlas and the renewable energy industry?

A. Atlas is a leading solar company, and we have grown in line with industry standards. We have realized that, unlike traditional suppliers, startups are more innovative. Therefore, relying on them is a way to solve problems creatively, adapt to new challenges, and be highly innovative. In short, we don’t believe in rigid solutions; we want to incorporate new visions, ideas, and technologies.

Q. How are the solutions offered by a startup less rigid?

A. They are generally growing companies focused on developing themselves and are open to new solutions. They don’t try to sell you a standard product; instead, they try to find a solution to your problem together with you and to evolve with the company until the optimal answer is found.

 Q. What kind of challenges does the renewable energy industry face that can be solved with the support of startups?

A. There are many. For example, there are issues related to environmental impact, panel temperature, and soil erosion where the plants are installed. There are also challenges associated with the preservation of vegetation.

There are also issues related to the use of resources. For example, radiation calculations, operating algorithms that monitor how the panels follow the sun, more modern electrical equipment, transformer cables, and automation for better performance and more efficient operation of the plants, both in their construction design and in their process, to gain an additional percentage of energy generation.

Q. How can startups contribute to the operation of Atlas Renewable Energy?

 A.  We are calling on startups to offer solutions for the development of the solar industry. We want to bring them on board to jointly develop new technologies or test the technologies they have created. We are not looking for emerging companies that are being born with an idea; we are looking for companies that already have a product. We intend to allow them to test that product, service, or technology on an accurate scale in Atlas plants anywhere in Latin America.     

Q. How have you collaborated with startups in Chile?

A. We have a test lab in one of our plants. We set aside a specific area for that lab and tested different things there. For example, variations of photovoltaic panels, new technologies, and types of albedo, that is to say, the soil that reflects the sunlight so that the panels capture it better.

Some startups have suggested helping us improve the type of soil and the reflection of the soil and to change the materials used. We also have initiatives in terms of cleaning. For example, we use robots that clean the panels without water. These are areas where we have incorporated technologies that are not traditional in the renewable energy industry.  

Q. What do you recommend to startups that aspire to be considered as partners?

A. The first thing is to encourage them to participate. They should contact us, show us their products, and tell us how we could improve our operation with their technology, products or services. From there, the next step is to evaluate their proposals. There are no qualifications: we look for everything that can contribute somehow. We are interested in measuring and testing the efficiency, efficacy, and effectiveness of the solutions they offer us.

 Q. What is the call for the Open Innovation Challenge that Atlas and Endeavor are inviting to participate in?

It is a call to receive proposals for solutions from emerging companies that save us costs and improve our production, allowing us, for example, to predict with greater precision how much energy a plant will generate. We are also looking for solutions that help us operate more efficiently by reducing costs or using fewer resources, such as dry-cleaning robots, which are especially useful in places like the Chilean desert, where water is scarce. Another example is solutions that allow us to monitor plants remotely.

In general, the call for proposals has been excellent. We have received applications from companies across the globe: Europe, America, and Asia. As for the prize, we plan to offer 20,000 dollars to the companies that qualify to test their technologies with Atlas. With that money, a pilot project will be conducted within one to six months. If the pilot project succeeds, we will have more than twenty solar plants where it can be implemented on a massive scale.

Q. What is Endeavor’s participation in the Open Innovation Challenge?

Endeavor has the potential to discover, attract, structure, and systematize innovative ideas. It would have been very challenging for us to do it directly. Endeavor is specialized in approaching and connecting startups with the companies that require the services. In our case, Atlas is a platform for investing in renewable energy. Our goal is to support, and the challenge is to develop beneficial and environmentally friendly technology. The idea is to leave a positive legacy.

Q. How advanced are we in Latin America in the technologies you need at Atlas?

A. All these technologies were created in Europe, where they have been developed for many more years, and many people are thinking about improving and optimizing the industry. Latin America is ready; it is a continent growing enormously in installing renewable energy. There are some pioneering countries: Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. Other countries, such as Peru and Colombia, are just starting and have the greatest potential for growth in renewable energy in Latin America.

We are a company that was born in Latin America. Now we are expanding into Europe, starting with Spain. We will incorporate the products and services of startups that we see as useful in all our plants. Brazil is where Atlas has the largest number of operating plants, and we would be very interested in testing new services. Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay are other countries where we can test them.

Q. How are we doing in Latin America regarding innovation in the renewable energy industry?

A. Latin America is one of the continents with the fastest-growing renewable technologies. In a way, Europe has already gone down this road, and the spaces are much smaller. There, it is increasingly complex to install new renewable plants.

Latin America starts with some pioneering countries (Brazil, Chile, and Mexico), and others just beginning the journey and have everything to grow. This is the case in Colombia, where the penetration of renewables may be around one percent. Latin American countries can grow to whatever they set as a goal. Chile is already at 20 percent of renewable energy and plans to go further. The extreme case is Uruguay, where almost all the energy consumed is renewable. It does not use fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Q. How do you perceive Latin America in terms of the contribution of innovative ideas?

A. I think it is a difficult issue to measure. There will be more and more support for an industry such as renewable energies, which has grown exponentially and will grow the most globally. It is impressive.

There are young people with initiatives that accompany the development of the renewable energy industry with ideas and an eye on spaces with opportunities. We are open to proposals and welcome at any congress or meeting the ideas of those who approach us and offer things.

I encourage those who are in charge of startups. No one should feel that their product or service is not important. They should know that there are spaces to develop projects together. A good idea that may partially solve a problem can be a great solution as long as people dare. The key is to have initiative. There are no bad ideas. A well-executed project can work, and we want to offer the space to test ideas.

Q. Tell us about Atlas’ innovation lab in Chile.

A. It’s in a plant in Chile, very close to Santiago. It is a 120-megawatt plant connected to the grid and is operational. We decided that in that plant, which has a full-scale operation, we could allocate a segment, a section, for different tests. We have been doing this for about three years now.

When, for example, bifacial modules (modules that capture sunlight not only on the upper side but also on the lower side) appeared in the laboratory, we could test different types and see how efficient they were.

The panels follow the sun as it moves during the day. But then, many variables influence their efficiency, such as the slope of the terrain, the shadow of one panel on another, or the shadow that a hill may cast on the plant. We saw a chance to improve if we had a specific algorithm for each row of panels and not a generic one for the whole plant. That gave us one or two percent more energy generation. We can use our laboratory in Chile or adapt our other plants to do the tests.

Ultimately, at Atlas, we are open to experimenting with startups and anyone with the idea that can contribute to the cause of generating renewable energy that is friendly to the planet and profitable for Atlas Renewable Energy.

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