Hilltop Turbines Signal The Winds of Change
PUBLICATION: The Beach Times, Costa Rica, print edition
“Look, your worship,’’ said Sancho. “What we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the vanes that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”
“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that you are not used to this business of adventures.”
— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Twelve years ago, a train of cars headed up the long, dirt road that winds towards Arenal, loaded with piles of steel, concrete and rebar. The final goal was to erect 57 wind turbines along the top ridge.
At the time, wind energy was nearly unheard of in Central America and in a developing country still 73 percent hydroelectric, one might have called the $35 million project visionary. At the very least, it represented the first of its kind in Costa Rica.
Getting the parts up the mountain was a long, laborious process, requiring 500 truckloads and more than 3400 tonnes of steel and materials.
“The first plant was horrendously difficult,” says Plantas Eólicas Project Manager Jay Gallegos. “It was an experience that almost killed me. There were many reasons I wanted to just pack up and leave.”
Today the towers stand like giants along the ridgeline, just northwest of Tilarán’s Las Parcelas de Quebrada Azul. From an airplane, they can be seen zigzagging along the crests, with 40-meter rotors sweeping large circles through the sky.
Since the first plant became operational in 1996, three more have gone up and another is under construction in nearby Miravalles, making a total of 118 turbines on the hillside.
Gallegos says maintenance has gotten easier and technology such as trucks that turn on eight axel helps ease the labor.
Three of the projects—Plantas Eólicas, Molinos de Viento del Arenal (MOVASA), and Aero Energía—are privately owned and the fourth, called Tejana, is run by the Costa Rican energy giant Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE).
They employ about 100 people directly and have a collective 71-megawatt capacity, generating some 273 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year.
Although those numbers represent just two percent of the country’s total energy, it is significant enough to put the Arenal region—where annual winds average 11 meters per second — on the world’s renewable energy map.
According to the project manager, demand for energy in Central America is growing five to six percent annually and, with all of Costa Rica’s “easy” hydroelectric resources already tapped, sustainable alternatives are becoming increasingly vital.
“The potential in Costa Rica is very good,” says Gallegos. “There are a lot of very windy sites.”
Yet powerful wind is not the only factor necessary for a successful plant. Gallegos says that to install a power plant, “a lot of stars have to align.”
Things like soil quality, temperature, archaeological activity, market access, port proximity, and cooperative governments all come into play.
Furthermore, he says, wind farms must be close to other power sources to provide an outlet into the system. The fact that the mountainous region is close to three main hydroelectric plants, he says, is part of what made the site so alluring.
“You have to plug into the national grid,” says Gallegos. “The (nearby plants) made a good extension chord.”
Prior to opening, his firm had been taking measurements at meteorological towers for years, he says, at key sites in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America.
The advantages to wind energy are numerous, he says; but a key perk, aside from the environmental impact, is price.
Although the initial investment is high, maintenance and labor costs thereafter are cheap—more so than other technologies. Additionally, he says, unlike thermal power—which drives a huge percentage of power in Central America—there are zero fuel costs after construction.
Gallegos says, in fact, that 80 per cent of wind technology costs lie in the installation. In that sense, he says, it is like installing a fluorescent light bulb.
Yet despite long-term advantages, the project manager says, the technology is difficult to sell in this region.
“The problem with wind here is they don’t want long-term,” he says. “They have a short term political agenda and they want cheap right now.”
Gallegos says wind makes sense in Central America for three reasons: First, the region is widely dependent on thermal power, which requires oil to burn. This is expensive and polluting, which makes fossil fuel replacement appealing.
Secondly, he says, tropical climates create perfect complimentary industries between hydropower and wind power because in the rainy season, there is water and no wind, and in the dry season, the reverse.
The final reason, he says, is the imminent need to mitigate global warming.
At Princeton University, a committee called the Carbon Mitigation Initiative has created a “wedge” system to illustrate ways to ease carbon emissions. Seven wedges, they say, would be needed to stabilize the global warming situation.
Examples of things that would achieve one wedge, if done on a large scale, include efficient vehicles, biomass fuel, and reduced deforestation. According to Gallegos, wind power is the only energy technology capable of producing two wedges.
He estimates the four wind plants together in Arenal mitigate about 50,000 tonnes of carbon emissions each year and, although he can’t quantify that in oil, confirms it is “a lot.”
However, at the moment, mainstream strategies remain the center of more attention. The project manager points to the fact that governments subsidize about $8 in traditional technologies for every $1 given to alternative energy.
The total cost to society is enormous, he says, likening thermal power to the cigarette industry, where sellers are not made to pay for external costs to society.
To get a visual image of the impact thermal energy has on the environment, he advises people to visit a fossil fuel plant and “look at the chimney.” Moreover, he says, he encourages people to contemplate the subtler consequences of the industry.
“What if you load into that cost the war in Iraq?” he says. “What does it really cost to burn oil?”
In Costa Rica specifically, Gallegos says, there has historically been a good record of keeping environmentally friendly energy policies, relying primarily on hydroelectric energy. Yet as demand grows, he says, the paradigm has begun to shift.
“They’re getting into this same addiction—and I call it an addiction—to oil,” he says.
Worldwide, countries have started mandating how much of the nation’s energy has to be green. Costa Rica has not adopted that policy yet, but legislation is on the table.
If oil costs stay high, Gallegos says, policies will likely pass in a few years. But if they drop, it could be longer. Whatever happens with legislation, he says, one thing remains clear: the country must begin exploring greener avenues.
“Costa Rica needs to open up to renewable alternatives,” he says.
This article was originally published in The Beach Times newspaper. Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Photo with permission by Pixabay.