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The energy from the bowels of the earth, geothermal energy, is destined to boost electricity generation in Central America, a region of the world with enormous potential in this field.
"Volcanoes have always been a threat to humanity but now in El Salvador they are a resource to produce clean, renewable and cheap energy, now they represent the future of our nations," said the president of the government's Executive Hydroelectric Commission of the Lempa River, David López, in a regional workshop on geothermal energy.
The conclave, held on August 21 and 22 in San Salvador, and a regional congress on clean energy during the following three days, allowed representatives of the governments of the region, experts and academics to exchange experiences and discuss key issues to promote geothermal energy as one of the cleanest and cheapest renewable energies.
Central America, with 40 million inhabitants and an economic growth of three percent per year, has shown a 65 percent increase in energy demand over the last 12 years.
It is also estimated that by 2020 all of its countries will require an injection of seven additional gigawatts to the current supply, according to a report published in July by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA, in English).
Additionally, seven million people still do not have, or have little, access to electricity, according to this organization dedicated to promoting the development of sustainable energy in the world.
The engine that moves Central America has historically been driven, for the most part, by hydroelectric plants, but the new energy realities, in an increasingly changing world, have allowed the entry of new players.
Thus, little by little geothermal energy has made its way, which produces the internal heat of the Earth and which is concentrated underground in places with volcanoes or geysers, known as geothermal reservoirs, which can produce clean energy indefinitely.
This heat energy is transmitted to the surface and the force generated by the steam is used to drive a turbine capable of moving an electric generator, in plants within the producing fields or in the vicinity.
Given the environmental vulnerability of the isthmus and the impacts that climate change is already causing, with phenomena such as increasingly prolonged droughts, it is vital that the region depend less on hydroelectric generation and strive to develop other options, he told IPS. geologist Leonardo Solís, from the state Costa Rican Institute of Electricity.
“If there are climatic variations, droughts, etc., with what do we compensate? We have to say that geothermal energy is an excellent complement to other energies, ”he said, during a visit to the Ahuachapán Power Plant, one of the two geothermal plants in El Salvador, within the framework of clean energy activities in the area.
The workshop was organized by LaGeo, the state company in charge of geothermal production in El Salvador, and IRENA, with the support of the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), while the congress was coordinated by IRENA itself together with other organisms.
Geothermal energy in the region began to develop in the 1970s in El Salvador, with the opening of its first plant in Ahuachapán, in the west of the country, and then gradually began to be exploited in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras.
Now, the five nations are among the top 10 in the world in terms of the participation of geothermal in the energy matrix, with El Salvador as second in the list, only behind Iceland, since the heat of the earth contributes around 25 percent of the total its primary energy.
"El Salvador is a good example of how it has used its geothermal energy to meet its energy needs," Alexander Richter, president of the International Geothermal Association, told IPS.
In terms of installed capacity, Costa Rica is the Central American leader, with 207 megawatts, followed by El Salvador with 204, Nicaragua with 55 and Guatemala with 50.
However, "geothermal power has not yet fully developed potential and we want to help the governments of the region to develop it," IRENA senior advisor Vanessa Interiano told IPS.
According to calculations by that agency, the region could meet with geothermal energy almost double the energy demand forecast for 2020.
"The sector has not grown as it could have, there are many challenges, but in general, the people and experience are here, and there are important projects under development," said Richter.
Central American governments are promoting the Central American Clean Energy Corridor, an initiative that aims to inject into the regional system electricity generated from energies that do not cause greenhouse emissions.
This effort will be carried out through the Electrical Interconnection System for Central American Countries, a network of 1,800 kilometers of transmission lines that connect 35 million users from Guatemala, in the north, to Panama, in the south.
The idea arose from a similar initiative launched by IRENA in Africa in 2013 to interconnect clean sources to the system, from Cairo in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa.
But promoting and further developing the geothermal industry faces significant challenges.
One of them is obtaining financial resources to develop the initial stages of a project, exploration and drilling, as well as the construction of the plant itself.
"That costs money, and you need a stable economy capable of paying electricity prices that sustain these projects," Richter said.
The initial cost of exploring and drilling three to five geothermal wells ranges from $ 20 million to $ 30 million. It is a small sum compared to the total cost of a geothermal development, but difficult to raise, given the risk of operations, says a World Bank report, from August 2016, on the advantages and challenges of the energy source in America Latin.
Other barriers to overcome have to do with access to technology, which is not always available, as is training, emphasized Interiano, the IRENA advisor.
However, in this area, El Salvador has been a pioneer in creating a technical learning center in this area, through which it has provided training to professionals and students from Latin America and the Caribbean. He is currently carrying out a diploma in geothermal energy in which 30 students from 10 countries participate.
Also, "it is important to disseminate information about what is being done in this field, many people do not know the importance of this type of energy, and make people and young people enthusiastic about studying renewable energies," he said.
But above all, the need to create laws and regulatory frameworks is one of the priorities if you want to obtain an expansion of renewable energy in general, and geothermal energy in particular in the region, said several panelists during the workshop in San Salvador.
Currently Argentina, Belize, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Uruguay have renewable energy laws, and Venezuela is developing one, says the World Bank document.
However, he clarifies that "the lack of this type of specific legislation does not necessarily mean the absence of solid support for renewable energies, with Brazil and Costa Rica as a clear example."
"Most of the Latin American countries, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay, have one or more specific laws depending on the renewable resource in question," the study states.
By Edgardo Ayala
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez