One of the projects of the Sandinista government led by President Daniel Ortega, since he returned to the presidency in 2007, has been the sustained commitment to clean energy and to make access to that clean energy accessible to more people, especially in rural areas.
Every week there are announcements of new projects, by the government or private capital, completed or planned both in production and the distribution of electricity. Between Sept. 26-30, the press and government reported:
- 9/26 The private African palm oil company, Aceitera Real, announced that it was becoming energy self-sufficient by generating electricity from the vegetable waste of its palm oil processing plant in Chinandega.
- 9/26 The Nicaragua Ministry of Energy and Mines announced the construction of a new US$21 million hydroelectric plant on the Upa River in the Department of Matagalpa. The 5 megawatt plant will come online before the end of the year and will benefit thousands of rural families in the north.
- 9/27 The Nicaragua Ministry of Energy and Mines announced the construction of a 5-10 megawatt biomass energy generating plant this year in the Department of Chinandega that will benefit thousands of families in the western part of the country.
- 9/28 The Inter-American Development Bank praised the BICMAQUINAS Recycling Project which is transforming old bicycles into clean energy generating machines. “The BICIAMAQUINAS are being used to power water pumps, mills, threshing machines and blenders, among other uses,” the IDB reported and said that renewable energy and innovation are contributing to the empowerment of women in rural areas of Nicaragua.
- 9/28 Presidential Communication Coordinator Rosario Murillo announced that the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE) approved a loan of US$163 million to support the upgrade and expansion of electricity coverage. “We are inaugurating new electricity projects every day. We are bringing light and hope to thousands of families in rural areas of the country, improving the quality of life of the people and winning the fight against poverty,” Murillo said.
- 9/30 Minister of Energy and Mines Salvador Mansell announced that a variety of studies are underway to increase electricity coverage using renewable energy. “The Inter-American Development Bank has approved more than US$100 million for research and development of geothermal energy projects. Hydropower feasibility studies of the Rio Grande de Matagalpa and Rio Coco Basin are being prepared. Likewise a two-year study of the regions with high wind energy generating potential is about to be completed,” Mansell said.
With the exception of the Tumarin hydro project (which may never be completed due to the PETROBAS corruption scandal in Brazil), most of the projects, which also include a substantial number of privately-funded solar and wind farms, have a pretty small footprint.
Nicaragua is fortunate to have multiple sources of clean energy. It has generated power from two geothermal plants for decades, and those plants are being upgraded and modernized. It has abundant sunlight, but most solar energy production isn’t for the national grid but rather for individual homes, sports park lighting, and public wifi and battery charging stations. There are areas that have steady winds, including the shores of Lake Cocibolca, which is said to “have the best wind resources in the Americas,” and we’ve already seen some wind farms go in and more are in the study phase. It has many rivers and streams suitable for small-scale hydro.
Many readers will remember that Ben Linder was working on just such a project when he was executed by the Contras in 1987. Nicaragua also has bounteous biomass allowing for projects ranging from biodigesters creating methane cooking gas from cow and pig excrement, to huge electricity generators that add significant amounts of power to the national electrical grid during sugarcane harvest season.
In an aside, I used to be skeptical about calling it “clean” energy if it was produced from sugarcane, coffee and palm oil waste. However, as it has been explained to me, vegetable matter returns carbon to the air as it decomposes as part of the normal environmental cycle, so producing electricity with it does not add carbon to the atmosphere as does oil, coal, and forests which sequester carbon for longer periods of time. That explanation makes sense to me.
Nicaragua is hardly unique in its multiple sources of potential clean energy production. The United States has all these sources and much more capital to develop them, but in 2015 produced only 13.44% of its electricity from renewable resources. Nicaragua exceeded 50% in 2015 and is on target to produce 85% in 2020. What is different is that Nicaragua has a government with the will to fight climate change by reducing its dependence on fossil fuels.
At the same time it has the will to extend the life-changing benefits of electricity to communities that have never had it, and where it would never be profitable to extend it if those decisions were made by a private, for-profit company. Ten years ago, less than half of Nicaraguan households had access to electricity. Today that figure is nearing 80%. It is hard to overstate the positive effect electricity has on quality of life and health. We who have had it our whole lives take it for granted. Think what it means to have light after dark, to be able to refrigerate your food, to have running water thanks to your electric pump, to potentially have a washing machine, an electric sewing machine, and much much more. And it is women who most benefit from the labor-saving improvements.
You can draw your own conclusion about why Daniel Ortega is the second most popular president in Latin America.
- In the past eight years the government’s National Reforestation Crusade has reforested 84,000 hectares prioritizing the planting of native species in sensitive areas. Unfortunately, against an annual forest loss of 70,000 hectares, the effort has only slowed the loss. From 1950 to 2007, Nicaragua’s forest coverage has dropped from 80 million hectares to 32 million. The government’s goal is to reforest 4.5 million hectares over the next 10 years by planting 15 million saplings a year. The World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility has made US$5 million available and praised Nicaragua for combatting deforestation in an inclusive manner, respecting the rights of indigenous and Afro-descended people. (Informe Pastran, Sept. 30; Nicaragua News, Sept. 30)
- Only 12.9% of youth aged 20-24 know about the problem of the invasion of settlers in the Caribbean Coast’s Bosawas Nature Preserve, and only 12.7% understand the ecological importance of the reserve. The M&R Consultants polls conducted from April to June contrasted that with the 17.7% of those 45 years old and above, although that figure seems appallingly low itself, representing the historic ignorance of those on the populous Pacific half of the country about the sparsely populated Eastern half of the country. Environmentalists blamed the ignorance on the country’s education system. The poll interviewed 1,700 people in 17 departments (states). (El Nuevo Diario, Sept 24)
- Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) President Jose Adan Aguerri, praised the Tripartite Alliance Model used by the Sandinista government, saying that it has helped strengthen Nicaragua’s legal framework in order to attract new investments. Under the Tripartite model, the government, employers, and labor unions negotiate new minimum wages every six months, nearly always achieving a consensus agreement. When agreement is impossible, the government sets the new wages. Aguerri said that a new Public-Private Partnership bill and a Personal Property Warranty bill will be introduced in the legislature in the coming days. He said, “The purpose of these initiatives is to improve the investment climate and encourage growth of small businesses in the country.” (Nicaragua News, Sept. 30)