During the last two decades, the global installed capacity for geothermal electricity has nearly doubled. Despite this recent expansion, geothermal energy is not getting the same level of attention as other renewable energy resources, and it remains heavily underutilized. If the world were able to tap just a small portion of the Earth’s heat, we could provide everyone with clean and safe energy for centuries. Current estimates of our global potential for geothermal energy range from 35 gigawatts (GW) to 2,000 GW. However, simple technological improvements could greatly increase these projections.

For example, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study concluded that if the United States were to invest US$1 billion in geothermal research and development over the next 15 years, the country could increase its generating capacity by 100 GW by 2050. Currently, the United States is the world leader in installed capacity, but it still produces only about 3 GW of geothermal energy. Encouragingly, the same MIT study estimated that, with the proper technical improvements, 2,000 zettajoules (1 ZJ=1021 joules) of geothermal energy would be extractable in the future. This is equivalent to the estimated energy contained in the world’s petroleum reserves as of 2010. Recognizing this vast potential, some countries are finally taking action to tap into this clean energy source.

Central America, in particular, is progressing quickly as several countries begin to develop previously untouched geothermal resources. Central America is located within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volcanically active region that has excellent potential for geothermal electricity. Estimates for the geothermal potential of the region are as high as 13,000 megawatts (MW). However, the region is harnessing only 506 MW of this energy and is still heavily dependent on expensive imported fossil fuels.

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Central America, development, El Salvador, geothermal, 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

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