The central American republic of Nicaragua is nothing short of a renewable energy paradise: great winds, a scorching tropical sun and 19 volcanoes that can be tapped for geothermal. Not too long ago, the country had been enslaved by its over-dependence on foreign oil imports, since it practically has no performing oil rigs. Since 2005, the country has embarked on a series of reforms which included serious tax rebates and incentives to foreign investors to develop its renewable sector. Today, Nicaragua meets 50% of its energy needs from solar panel, wind farms and geothermal plants and wants to expand to 90% by 2020, according to the World Bank.
Decades of turmoil, civil war and unrest have taken its toll on Nicaragua and its people. Energy has always been a problem in the country and 12 hour long outages were the norm. This were particularly devastating on the economy, especially on local businesses who relied on the centralized grid. Carpenters sat idle because their power tools were useless and mills couldn't grind corn, recalls Silverio Martinez, who runs a general store in the farm town of San Jacinto. Today, only a few miles away from Martinez lies a $400 million geothermal plant.
"We try to locate where a hot rock resource is, which is usually about 5 to 7 kilometers below the earth's crust," says Antonio Duarte, the plant's manager for NPR.
The energy output of its geothermic resources is considered the best in Central America, with estimated potential reserves of 1,500 MW. So far, 154 MW have been tapped by the country’s power plants, Polaris and Momotombo.
“You must recall that this is taking place in the second-poorest country in Latin America and amid the worst financial, economic social and increasingly political crisis of world capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” said Nicaraguan presidential advisor Paul Oquist.
Nicaragua is also focusing on another renewable energy source: wind. The country's roads are now littered with three bladed turbines. Some 22 wind turbines supply 44MW of energy to the national network thanks to the Eolo project that will help the province of Rivas become completely free of fossil fuel. Nicaragua's largest wind farm lies on the shores of giant Lake Nicaragua, which stretches halfway across the country. It's one of the best places to build a wind farm.
"You have all the opening here from the lake all the way to the Caribbean, so it's like a tunnel," says Javier Pentzke, manager of the Amayo wind farm. "And it's very steady. It's not too gusty."
Nicaragua is only at the dawn of its new renewable future. Soon enough, the country expects to begin exporting electricity to neighboring Central American countries. But while Nicaragua's energy policy serves as a model for other countries to follow (the US only generates 13% of its energy from renewables), elsewhere in the country sustainability isn't prized. The government recently sealed a deal with Chinese contractor to built a transoceanic canal. The $50 billion project will connect the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean through Nicaragua. This will help boost the country's economy greatly, but at the expense of wildlife, habitats, ecosystems and the local community (30,000 people will be relocated). Ultimately, while seemingly noble, wind farms and solar panels are developed out of economic considerations. Let's not kid ourselves, the environment, wildlife and even people aren't that important.