Despite its small size and population, Belize is one of the most culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse countries in Central America. As a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as well as the Central American Integration System (SICA), it is the only Central American country with strong ties to both the Caribbean and Latin America. In the initial phase of our project in the region, the Worldwatch Institute is assessing the existing barriers to and opportunities for a socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable energy system in Belize—an outcome that could connect these two neighboring yet culturally distinct communities and provide tangible benefits to both.
With a population of only 350,000 and a national economy of US$1.5 billion in 2011, Belize does not consume large amounts of energy. Peak electricity demand in 2010 was 80.6 megawatts (MW), well below the U.S. state of Vermont’s peak energy demand of 953 MW in 2011. Belize’s low energy consumption makes it a suitable location for further development of clean, indigenous energy sources.
Currently, Belize depends heavily on foreign energy sources. In 2010, the country imported more than a third of its electricity from the Mexican power provider, Comisión Federal de Electricidad. In addition, Belize spent approximately $129 million, or 18.2 percent of its total import expenditures, on imported fuels. Not only has this raised energy prices for consumers, but if Belize continues to rely largely on imports to meet its energy demand, it will be highly susceptible to fluctuations on the international market. The Belizean government must explore other, local energy resources to strengthen and stabilize the country’s energy sector.
Over the last 20 years, Belize has spent considerable resources developing domestic hydropower. The Mollejon power plant, a 25.2 MW run-of-the-river facility on the Macal River, was completed in 1995 and is owned by Belize Electricity Company Limited (BECOL), a subsidiary of Belize Electricity Limited. A decade later, BECOL completed the “Chalillo” facility a few miles upstream, to increase the plant’s total output. Many people objected to the Chalillo dam, however, because they believed (and some studies demonstrated) that it would threaten the ecological diversity of the Macal River Valley. Environmental groups, including the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, filed lawsuits alleging that the project would destroy critical rainforest habitat for the jaguar, scarlet macaw, howler monkey, tapir, and other endangered and threatened species.
Supporters of the Chalillo project argued that the dam was necessary because it would lessen Belize’s dependence on Mexican power and expand domestic access to electricity. In the end, the dam was built, but the project highlighted the public resistance to large hydroelectric projects and their environmental impacts. The project also illustrated the competing interests in furthering economic development while also safeguarding important natural resources. Moving forward, Belize will need to focus its attention on renewable energy sources with fewer negative environmental consequences.
Like many Central American countries, Belize has a large untapped renewable energy potential; however, the extent of this remains largely unknown, due to the lack of comprehensive assessments. If the Belizean government were to commit to developing domestic solar, wind, and biomass resources—as well as updating the grid system—these renewable sources alone would likely be able to satisfy Belize’s entire energy demand.
Although Belize lacks a national wind energy assessment, known wind resources exist in Baldy Beacon, a region capable of supplying 20 MW of electricity from wind turbines, or almost a quarter of the country’s electricity needs. The Belizean government needs to conduct a comprehensive wind resource assessment to identify other suitable turbine locations. In addition to studying the feasibility of a wind farm in Baldy Beacon, there is significant potential for small-scale, off-grid wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) projects in communities without access to the national grid.
Biomass energy is another option. In 2009, BELCOGEN, a subsidiary of Belize Sugar Industries, completed a waste-to-energy power plant in the district of Orange Walk that is capable of generating 31.5 MW of electricity. The cogeneration facility reportedly uses only 8 percent heavy fuel and relies on 92 percent biomass, burning wet bagasse, or residue from the sugarcane milling process, to generate high-pressure steam. Due to the extent of sugar production in Belize, similar facilities could be established in the future to produce more local, clean energy.
Bagasse, wind power, and solar energy all offer an excellent alternative for a country that to-date has relied heavily on imported electricity, controversial large-scale hydropower, and fossil fuel imports.
Sean Ahearn is a Climate and Energy intern at Worldwatch Institute.