Worldwatch Visits Central America

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.

Throughout my travels, there was no lack of lively discussion about the future of clean energy, but everyone agrees that discussion alone is not enough! Direct action and concrete tools are needed to promote renewable energy development, and this is why three upcoming Worldwatch events in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua will focus on investment and the transformation of cumbersome administrative processes.

Worldwatch’s project in the region – supported by the Energy and Environment Partnership with Central America (EEP) and the London-based Climate Development Knowledge Network – is using international best practices to address obstacles to renewable energy development across Central America.

Before I left Costa Rica, I paid a visit to a 13 MW wind farm in the cloud-forested hills of ‘Los Santos’ outside of San Jose. There I met with the social and environmental impact director of a very forward-thinking energy cooperative called ‘Coopesantos’. As a community initiative and without outside consultation, Coopesantos – one of the country’s four energy cooperatives – initiated a wind feasibility study in 2000 by placing weather instruments in a known windy area called ‘La Ventalera’. And so the story goes that an innovative group of people belonging to the cooperative was able to carry out the feasibility study, environmental impact assessment and project design, secure financing, and finally in 2009, complete construction.

13 MW Coopesantos Wind Farm

Although Coopesantos was originally established in the 1960’s as a rural energy cooperative without connection to the national grid, today the cooperative is tied to the national grid and energy is purchased from the state utility company. The cooperative was initially able to secure financing through the Banco Internacional de Costa Rica based on the value of projected avoided costs by local production of electricity through the wind farm. The bank loaned Coopesantos 75 percent of project costs and the cooperative, as a for-profit entity with its own cash flow, was able to cover the remaining 25 percent of project costs. The loan will be paid off entirely in 12 years and the wind farm will generate power for up to 30 years.

Through my discussions with key renewable energy players such as Coopesantos and interviews with high-level government and private sector stakeholders, it became clear that Worldwatch and INCAE’s efforts need to address how to spur investment in renewables and how to streamline existing incentive, permitting and administrative processes within regulatory bodies – that is, to engage the private and public sectors in progressing toward sustainable energy as a common goal which is advantageous for the public, the economy, as well as the environment.

Recent successes – wind farms in operation, geothermal stations at full capacity, distributed solar initiatives providing power in isolated areas – can all be replicated many times over with the right market conditions and public and political will. This project, through the application of the Worldwatch sustainable energy roadmap approach, is determined to achieve rapid renewable energy adoption by further establishing such conditions.

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