Geothermal energy can fuel renewable power generation in Central America, a region which has great potential in this field.
“Volcanoes have always been a menace to humanity but now in El Salvador, they are a resource to generate clean, renewable and cheap energy. Now they represent the future of our nations,” said David López, president of the government’s Lempa River Executive Hydropower Commission, in a regional workshop on geothermal energy.
Geothermal energy is one of the cleanest and cheapest renewable energy sources. The governments of Central America are promoting a Central American Clean Energy Corridor, an initiative that seeks to inject into the regional power grids electricity generated from sources that do not cause greenhouse effect emissions.
Central America, with a total population of 40 million people and annual economic growth of three per cent, has shown a 65 per cent increase in energy demand in the last 12 years.
Furthermore, seven million people still have no or little access to electricity, according to IRENA, which is devoted to promoting the development of sustainable energy around the world.
The motor that moves Central America has been driven mainly by hydropower plants, but geothermal energy has gradually been gaining strength. It is the energy produced by the internal heat of the earth, which is concentrated in areas where there are volcanoes or geysers, known as geothermal reservoirs, which can produce clean energy indefinitely. The heat or thermal energy is transferred to the surface, and the force generated by the steam is used to power a turbine that moves an electric generator, in a plant within or near a producing field.
Given the environmental vulnerability of Central America and the impacts that climate change is already causing, with phenomena such as increasingly long droughts, it is vital for the region to depend less on hydropower generation and to make greater efforts to develop other options, geologist Leonardo Solís, from the state Costa Rican Institute of Electricity, told IPS.
“If there are climate variations, droughts, etc., how 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 Plant, one of the two geothermal plants in El Salvador, as part of the activities on clean energies in the area.
Geothermal energy in the region started to be developed in the 1970s in El Salvador, with the inauguration of its first plant in Ahuachapán, in the west of the country, and later it began to be developed in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras. Now, these five countries are among the top 10 in the world with respect to the share of geothermal energy in their energy mix, with El Salvador second only to Iceland, since the earth’s heat makes up 25 per cent of its total primary energy supply. In terms of installed capacity, Costa Rica is the leader in Central America, with 207 MW, followed by El Salvador with 204, Nicaragua with 55 and Guatemala with 50. According to the agency’s estimates, the region could meet almost twice the energy demand projected for 2020 by using geothermal energy.
The sector has not expanded as it could have done. promoting and developing more geothermal energy is facing major challenges. One of them is obtaining financial resources to carry out the initial stages of the project, the exploration and drilling, as well as the construction of the plants themselves.
“That costs money, and requires a stable economy capable of paying high enough electricity prices to sustain these projects,” said Alexander Richter, president of the International Geothermal Association
The initial cost of the exploration and drilling of three to five geothermal wells ranges from 20 to 30 million dollars. This is a small sum compared to the total cost of a geothermal field development.