Nicaragua In Numbers
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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.
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