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.
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.
In order to inform our research and the work of other participants, speakers attended to present best practice examples from throughout Central America. Rebeca Ramírez, representing the Energy Secretariat of Panama, spoke to that country’s recent steps in the promotion of wind power through wind-only government-sponsored auctions. If the currently planned Penonome project being developed by Unión Eolica Panameña is built on schedule, Panama will have its first wind station, with a capacity of 220 MW, in operation by the end of next year. At any given time with all blades spinning, the wind park will supply up to 7 percent of the country’s peak electricity demand.
According to Ramírez’s presentation, Panama needs to add 100 MW of new capacity each year to meet growing energy use. Given the right conditions, such demand could be met entirely through wind and other sustainable sources. Contracts are now signed and ground has been broken in the construction of the new wind farm. What remains to be accomplished is the successful importation of equipment and the meeting of generation costs in a profitable way. Critics have suggested that auctions which put a cap on the bidding price, such as those which have launched this wind project in Panama, can make it hard for generators to deliver at the agreed upon price – having underbid themselves. But, if the pieces of the puzzle come together, including financing, permitting, and construction, Panama will have implemented the region’s largest wind project in a fraction of the time that other projects have required.
Bringing our workshop out of the domain of policymaking and large power plants, Carolina Hernández of the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) made a presentation in a unique format. She conducted an interview in the center of the round table with Don Carlos, the owner of small dairy cow farm who received support to construct three biogas digesters. These digesters produce methane gas and electricity through the decomposition of livestock manure. Don Carlos burns the gas to heat water to produce steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity for use on his farm. While he was admittedly a skeptic at first, his son, who was also at the workshop, claimed responsibility for convincing Don Carlos of the value and feasibility of the project – Don Carlos was the one presenting his success story to the group of renewable energy experts.
With a sense of urgency, all participants were doing their part to increase local energy generation through green technologies as a means to reach sustainable social and environmental outcomes such as: education, health care, the mitigation of local pollution climate change effects, community participation and empowerment. We have been amazed by the amount of leadership on renewable energy in the region and we are extremely grateful for the high-quality contributions of our workshop participants. Through this consultation, we have identified key areas where reform is needed to further establish Central America as a worldwide renewable energy leader. In the coming months, we will continue to report on our conclusions from the workshops and the Way Forward for Renewable Energy in Central America.
Please see our project webpage for further workshop information including access to presentations as well as photos from the workshop and video interviews with renewable energy experts in Nicaragua.
We are thankful for the generous support of the Climate Development Knowledge Network and the Energy and Environment Partnership with Central America.