Earlier this month, the Worldwatch Institute’s Central America team – based in Washington, DC and Costa Rica – convened a workshop with over 35 renewable energy experts and decision-makers on the campus of the INCAE Business School in Alajuela, Costa Rica. Renewable energy experts from around the region, including experts from El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, were in attendance. The workshop was co-hosted by Alexander Ochs, Worldwatch Director of Climate & Energy, and Ana María Majano, Associate Director of the Latin American Center for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development (CLACDS). The event consisted of a distinctive round table discussion format that gave participants the opportunity to present, respond and get involved through small break-out groups. Questions were addressed regarding how to replicate renewable energy successes and overcome barriers preventing clean energy expansion in the region. The event took our research and potential for impact to a new level.

Senior Project Adviser and Associate Director of CLACDS, Dr. Ana María Majano

Central American governments have been vocal about their support for renewables by setting ambitious targets pertaining to all end user sectors – electricity, heating and cooling, and transportation. Such government support for renewables was evidenced by the presentation from the Costa Rican government’ director of energy, Gloria Villa, regarding the legacy of support for renewables by the MINAET. But the effective administration and governance of such policies remains a significant barrier. Jay Gallegos, the general manager of one of the largest wind companies in the region, Globeleq Mesoamerica Energy, warned that in bringing a wind project to fruition his company has to budget an additional 10 percent of overall project costs to handle ‘incidentals’ – that is, unplanned administrative costs and roughly 80,000 additional people hours.

Also discussing and addressing barriers was Jorge Vasquez of the Central American Integration System’s Energy Coordination Unit (USE-SICA), as well as major renewable energy investment funds such as E+Co Capital and Flex Energy Group/Private Financing Advisory Network.

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Central America, Costa Rica, development, energy, energy policy, renewable energy

Globally, biofuels are being promoted as a kind of nicotine patch to wean the world off its dirty and expensive fossil fuel addiction. Known by some as “aboveground oil fields,” biodiesel (made from vegetable oils and fats) and ethanol (made by fermenting the sugars in corn and sugarcane) present the opportunity to grow fuel feedstock on agricultural land—plots that can renew every few years rather than every few million. Biofuels lie at the intersection of a myriad of government goals, including energy independence, climate change mitigation, and rural development. Buttressed by 46 national regulatory policies worldwide that support the industry, liquid biofuels provided about three percent of global road transport fuels in 2011, up from two percent in 2009. What is taking place is essentially an agro-fuel revolution—one that will reverberate across millions of hectares, livelihoods, and lives.

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biodiesel, biofuel mandate, biofuels, Central America, climate change mitigation, Colombia, Costa Rica, deforestation, displacement, El Salvador, ethanol, Guatemala, Honduras, International Economic Development Program, land use change, Panama

New policies in Central America are connecting small-scale renewable energy users to the grid—but not in the direction you might expect.

Net metering policies allow owners of small-scale distributed renewable energy systems to feed power produced by their installations back into the grid. Under net metering, utility customers who own such systems can install a bi-directional meter that records both incoming and outgoing power and calculates the net difference. If customers produce more electricity than they use, they receive compensation from the utility company, often in the form of avoided costs or by receiving a pre-selected payment per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

Solar project in Esterillos. Source: Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad

Net metering is a low-cost, low-risk policy and has been successfully implemented in many countries around the world. The right of utility customers to produce renewable energy and connect their systems to a distribution network – in conjunction with other polices that promote renewables such as tax concessions and financial assistance —is helping individuals and communities to introduce renewables into the grid on a small scale. In Central America, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala have already introduced net metering policies to promote renewable energy deployment.  

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Central America, Climate Change, Costa Rica, net metering, renewable energy, renewable energy policy, small scale distributed renewable energy, solar power

Recently back from Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica, it is clear to me there is momentum, a culture even, behind sustainable energy in Central America. With the efforts of government agencies, project developers (such as Globeleq and GeothermEx), major research organizations (such as OLADE and CEPAL), renewable energy programs at universities (such as INCAE), and active NGO’s in every country, it is fair to say that as in many parts of the world today, a strong awareness of renewable energy exists in Central America and implementation efforts are growing, although certain limitations still hold back rapid adoption.

La CEL Pilot PV Installation

In this photo I am on the roof of El Salvador’s primary energy producer, the CEL (Comision Ejecutiva del Rio Lempa), with renewable energy engineer, Marlon Rodriguez. We are standing next to a pilot solar array which tests three types of photovoltaic (PV) modules and educates students on how solar power works. The CEL, which generates the majority of El Salvador’s electricity through hydropower, is currently designing a 14 megawatt (MW) solar PV plant. However, as with other new renewable projects in the pipeline that I encountered in Central America, progress for this solar farm has been hindered by a lengthy government permitting and approval process.

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Central America, Costa Rica, El Salvador, geothermal energy, Guatemala, renewable energy, solar energy, wind energy