Nicaragua In Num­bers

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

eas on earth.

As we grind up the dirt road lead­ing to the San Jac­into power plant, I catch oc­ca­sional glimpses of Tel­ica’s green slopes. It’s an ac­tive vol­cano. Today it’s quiet, but as we rise higher, fu­maroles bub­ble and hiss, cre­at­ing sul­phurous pools along the road.

At the entrance to the plant, part of the road has been closed off with haz­ard tape. Steam has burst through, cut­ting a hole in it. It’s a re­minder of just how volatile the area can be. In 2015 Tel­ica spewed rocks and ash into the air, forc­ing vil­lages to be evac­u­ated and killing dozens of cat­tle.

This is where Cana­dian com­pany Polaris has sited a $ 450 mil­lion in­vest­ment, part funded by Cen­tral Amer­i­can Bank for Eco­nomic In­te­gra­tion, gen­er­at­ing an av­er­age 65MW of elec­tric­ity. Ac­cord­ing to its en­gi­neers, this is the “safe” side of the vol­cano, al­though its in­sur­ance com­pany “is al­ways ask­ing what’s hap­pen­ing”.

Plant man­ager Alexis Osorno ex­plains that wa­ter that fell mil­lions of years ago has gath­ered in cracks and faults around the vol­cano.

“When you drill down – down as far as 3km – you find it as steam, at tem­per­a­tures of up to 300 de­grees, which at high pres­sure can be con­verted to elec­tric­ity.”

Osorno tells me Polaris pays the Nicaraguan gov­ern­ment $ 30,000 a year for the con­ces­sion. While the project has had its teething prob­lems, it’s now prof­itable, and is likely to be­come even more so, ac­cord­ing to Cana­dian stock an­a­lysts.

So­lar power

The tum­bling cost of so­lar power has also seen huge in­vest­ments across Cen­tral Amer­ica. Down the road from Tel­ica, Nicaragua’s first com­mer­cial so­lar plant has just been com­mis­sioned at Puerto Sandino on the Pa­cific coast. Biomass from sugar mills and hy­dro also con­trib­ute to the high rate of re­new­ables.

For the av­er­age Nicaraguan, what’s more im­por­tant is whether or not they have elec­tric­ity and how re­li­able it is. The gov­ern­ment says 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is now con­nected, leav­ing about 600,000 peo­ple be­yond reach of the grid. Mini-grids and so­lar pan­els are among the so­lu­tions to reach those in re­mote ar­eas in the moun­tains and on the Caribbean coast.

How­ever, while Nicaragua may be a re­new­able elec­tric­ity par­adise, it’s not all good news when i t comes to cli­mate change. Trans­port is 100 per cent fos­sil fuel. Most of the coun­try’s food is still cooked on wood­stoves, us­ing pre­cious trees. The gov­ern­ment is ac­cused of not tak­ing the is­sue of com­mer­cial de­for­esta­tion se­ri­ously.

“The gov­ern­ment has two faces,” says Agustín Mor­eira of Centro Hum­boldt. “They’re sign­ing the Paris ac­cords, but that’s re­ally to keep the pri­vate sec­tor happy. At the same time they are giv­ing log­ging con­ces­sions in the high moun­tains.”

Back at the Ochomogo River, which burst its banks dur­ing Storm Nate, some of those af­fected see the con­nec­tion.

“We can talk about the con­tam­i­na­tion by the other coun­tries’ CO emis­sions,” says Jac­que­lyn Molino, who saw how the river tore through his vil­lage. “But in this area they are cut­ting trees on the hills up­stream. If you cut down the trees there is noth­ing to slow down the wind, or hold the wa­ter in the ground. We are all to blame.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES

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