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* Chile energy company CEO upbeat on Bachelet
* AES Gener hopes to send power from Chile to Argentina
* Coal still more competitive than LNG in Chile, CEO says
By Alexandra Ulmer and Felipe Iturrieta
SANTIAGO, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Chilean energy company AES Gener SA is looking for purchases in booming Colombia and at home, where it is upbeat about incoming president Michelle Bachelet’s plans to spruce up the power sector.
The company, Chile’s second-largest energy generator, is eyeing sales of parts of Colombian peer Isagen SA, and coal-fired Guacolda plant in Chile, Chief Executive Officer Luis Felipe Ceron said in an interview on Wednesday.
“Chile and Colombia, those are the markets,” Ceron said.
AES Gener, a local unit of U.S. power group AES Corp , is pushing ahead with around $4 billion in investments in Chile and Colombia through 2018. Business has soared between the growing, investor-friendly Andean countries in recent years, especially in the retail and banking sectors.
The company is also hoping to receive a green light this year to export energy from Chile to neighboring Argentina via a 250 megawatt transmission line.
Already present in Argentina, Chile and Colombia, AES Gener’s potential expansion plans illustrate how power companies are seeking to tap into commodities-dependent Latin America’s soaring demand for energy.
While AES Gener is eyeing the majority stake sale in Isagen with interest, the required investment might be too big for the company, Ceron said. He added that AES Gener could potentially buy a smaller slice of the firm, Colombia’s third-largest generator.
The Santiago-based company, which supplies power to major miners, including state company Codelco and global company BHP Billiton, is also on the lookout for further investment opportunities at home.
Two shareholders of the Guacolda thermoelectric plant said in November that they are each seeking to sell their respective 25 percent stakes in the roughly 608 megawatt complex. AES Gener owns the other half of the plant.
“Depending on the price we could buy between everything and nothing,” Ceron said, declining to provide details.
Potential purchases would be financed via a mix of debt, cash flow and capital increase. Ceron said the company could pursue a strategy of teaming up with investment partners.
AES Gener is also keen on reactivating its planned more than $2 billion Los Robles coal-fired thermoelectric plant in southern Chile, depending on market and regulatory conditions.
However, AES Gener is not interested in expanding in Argentina. Latin America’s No. 3 economy is beset by surging demand and weak private investment, which many analysts attribute to government-imposed tariffs since a devastating 2001-02 financial crisis.
“The conditions that would make it of interest for us aren’t in place right now,” Ceron said.
One of the big questions for Chile’s power-hungry miners and industry is whether center-left Bachelet, who takes office in March, will be able to solve the looming energy crunch.
“We think she has a big interest in doing so,” Ceron said. “We’re very pleased with the nomination of Maximo Pacheco as energy minister, given his experience and trajectory,” he added, in one of the first private-sector reactions to the appointment.
Pacheco, who has a background in the mining and forestry industries, is seen as a market-friendly choice to lead the high-stakes ministry.
Key issues for him to tackle include a nebulous regulatory framework and setbacks to projects, which have stung generation in the copper powerhouse at a time of growing demand.
In a significant shift for business-friendly Chile, empowered social groups are successfully suing to block massive projects over threats to glaciers, health, indigenous rights and biodiversity. [ID: nL2N0KU0BU]
Ceron said he did not anticipate legal setbacks to hit AES Gener’s $2.05 billion Alto Maipo hydropower project, which has faced local opposition on grounds it will harm the supply and quality of Santiago’s water supply amid an ongoing drought.
Many in Chile are eyeing liquefied natural gas as the best bet to boost generation quickly while minimizing environmental harm.
But Ceron warned that cost remains a big deterrent.
“In principle it doesn’t seem attractive to develop new LNG projects,” Ceron said. “It’s difficult for LNG to be competitive (against coal), and this market is small.”
Facilitating the permitting process and improving tenders are particularly key to boosting investment in Chile’s energy sector, he stressed. (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Felipe Iturrieta; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Dan Grebler)