By: Nick Wolfe with Osea Nelson Issue: Resource Management Section: Business
An Ecuadorian Energy Odyssey
Ecuador is substantially dependent on its petroleum resources that account for more than half of its export earnings and 75 percent of the primary energy mix. As the smallest producer in OPEC, around a third of the country’s revenues are derived from the 500,000 barrels per day it produces in the mainland near the Amazon Rainforest. Hydroelectric power represents 22 percent, and renewable energy production remains small, but continues to grow, mirroring similar trends worldwide. While the United States and other areas of the world are developing unprecedented natural gas shale plays to power their economy, these unconventional options are not available for the small Latin American nation.
Starting in 2000, the caring people and history of Ecuador carved a special place in my heart, and I became interested in learning more about its future. On my third journey some nine years later, I spent a month in the Galápagos Islands to analyze their current energy dilemma and learn about their future plan to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. The following dialogue chronicles my personal experience.
OFF THE COUCH
It was the summer of 2009 when I watched a segment of Dan Rather Reports. Little did I know how much that program would influence my life in the coming months. The veteran newsman was broadcasting from the legendary Galápagos Islands, located 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The purpose of Rather’s journey wasn’t to sail the path that Darwin once took or snorkel with the abundant sea life. He was there to report on an issue that parallels the greatest crisis of this century—too many people have moved to the islands, putting a severe strain on resources available to support the increased population. Soon after viewing the Rather report, I began learning more about the specific problems facing the delicate Galápagos Islands, a location designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the endemic species found in their “evolutionary showcase.”
One fact little known to the outside world is that the amazing natural paradise experienced the ugly side of energy when a tanker ran aground in 2001, dumping 150,000 gallons of fuel into the delicate ecosystem. Fortunately, the accident had minimal harm on the environment thanks to strong currents that carried the fuel away from the islands. The near-catastrophic event, however, prompted policy officials to carefully re-examine their energy practices and priorities. After days of meetings and assessments, they decided to set an ambitious goal of meeting 100 percent of the islands’ electricity needs with renewable resources by 2015. I began contacting organizations working in the Galápagos and brainstorming how I could become involved with the project. Galápagos I.C.E.(Immerse Connect Evolve) and its President Emily Pozo offered me the opportunity to work with them and conduct my research.
I knew I had to experience the islands first-hand in order to research solutions for what seemed to be an improbable goal. I also needed to understand the broader implications of the global energy crisis in the context of what the Galápagos was experiencing. I booked my flights for December 2009 and invited Osea Nelson, a long-time friend and colleague, to join me on the excursion. Nelson is an energy development consultant with Lafayette, Colorado-based Next Generation Energy. A flight departing Denver and connecting in Miami took us to Quito, the capital of Ecuador—the second highest administrative capital in the world.
Hours after touching down and clearing customs, Nelson and I spoke to locals who revealed that energy was in short supply in this ecologically diverse Andean nation. Several factors were contributing to the shortage. The region was dealing with the most severe drought in decades, with dangerously low dams unable to supply hydropower for daily power demands. Rolling blackouts and periods of two-hour electricity rationing had become a part of everyday life for Ecuadorians. Generators and their constant low-end humming could be seen and heard on almost every block in the capitol city. Ice cream vendors scrambled to sell their products along the avenues before their products fell victim to the power outages. In short, daily life had become much more difficult for citizens and businesses alike.
We had pre-arranged a meeting in Quito with some of the individuals involved in the Galápagos energy projects that were already underway. After visiting the ERGAL (Energia Renovables Galápagos) offices and listening to the perspectives offered by officials there, Nelson and I had a greater understanding of the five-year renewable plan and the Galápagos energy situation. The next day we departed Quito for the sacred islands to the west. For us, it was an unprecedented journey into the same landscapes that have graced the covers of National Geographic and created timeless memories for those fortunate enough to see this magical place first-hand.
After a quick layover in Guayaquil, we touched down at the Baltra Airport, a former U.S. military base. We passed through the Galápagos Immigration Office of INGA and cleared a quick security screen to ensure no non-native fruits, vegetables, or animals become introduced species. Then it was on to a bus that took us one step closer to paradise. It soon became clear to Nelson and I, that despite the awesome beauty of the Galápagos each twist of the road served up, environmental challenges were as daunting on the islands as those of the mainland. As we peered out the windows of the bus charging towards the main town of Puerto Ayora, we wondered if the five-year renewable energy described to us earlier would even be possible. Could this magical group of islands have a fighting chance to preserve their heritage and, at the same time, deal with a future population projected at 30,000 residents?
Our apartment for the month was nestled in the highlands of Buena Vista, a few miles inland from the main port city of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. Each day the journey into town provided breathtaking views of a boundless ocean and miles of pristine coastline. Though mesmerized by attractive vegetation, lush forests, and enticing clear waters shielding vibrant reefs, Nelson and I remained devoted to the question before us—how realistic is ERGAL’s energy goals for the Galápagos Islands?
ERGAL’s master plan is to have large utility-scale installations on three of the islands. Currently, a variety of smaller distributed generation systems exist on the main island. The first solar photovoltaic (PV) project sites we visited included the Naval Captain’s port headquarter building, Charles Darwin Research Station, and the Japanese Marine Station, JICA. Upon arrival, we toured the naval headquarters and inspected the ground-based PV array. While holding a very prominent location visible from the main tourist pier downtown, it appeared to be in good working condition. However, the naval officers would not allow our investigation to go deep enough to collect actual performance data from the 4-kW of power it provided.
Next we traveled to the world-famous Charles Darwin Research Station, which boasts several different PV installations at the compound. A small 1-kW array is set up near the tour entrance, featuring an inverter mounted in a clear display box so that the output can be viewed by station visitors. While the array served as a nice technological demonstration, it was not well-maintained and proved not to be a substantial source of power output. Nelson observed some of the administration buildings and living quarters equipped with various small PV arrays. The main office complex of Charles Darwin Research Station featured a very nice 6-kW array mounted on the front entrance of the building—a system installed by the same Japanese researchers responsible for the Marine Station site next on our list. A bus ride across town ended at JICA. As we ventured out towards the long and beautiful boardwalk to the main beach, we inspected a pole-mounted 4-kW PV array. Like the arrays we discovered elsewhere, we were unable to precisely find out the exact output from the panels. Back in the apartment, Nelson and I compared our observations from the day. It was clear that while the handful of solar PV arrays on the island of Santa Cruz are a noble starting point, they are not nearly expansive enough to provide the utility-grade solar necessary to completely overcome the diesel generation by the 2015 deadline. The following day we traveled to San Cristobal Island to meet with the directors of the provincial electricity company Elecgalápagos SA to discuss the operation and performance of their wind site. Transportation to San Cristobal required a choppy three hour boat ride from Santa Cruz over open water in a cramped watercraft. We remained happy and hungry for adventure while diesel fumes and equilibrium challenges left several other passengers seasick. Upon arriving at the main headquarters, we gave attention to several topics regarding the energy crisis, including the government’s role in the expansion of clean power and overall thoughts from the community on the positive effects of clean energy.
In October 2007, the first wind energy project in all of Ecuador began operation on the second-most populous island of San Cristobal. The United Nations Development Program and members of the E8 Group funded more than half of the 2.4-MW project while the other portion came from national government funds and voluntary contributions. Located in the highlands of the island, the site consists of three on-shore mounted turbines that together contain the highest consistent wind-capacity factors. It is currently owned by the private entity EOLICSA which will transfer its assets to Elecgalápagos SA in 2014. The three 800-kW wind turbines generate 6,600 MW/year and reduce diesel consumption on the island by 52 percent.
The discussion with Elecgalápagos SA revolved around the obstacles in achieving energy independence for the islands and also outlined some of the unique challenges to the Galápagos Islands. Questions to the speakers were followed by a tour of the five main diesel generators on the site. This impressive and noisy set of heavy duty Caterpillar machines provides the majority of the island’s daily electricity. One of the main obstacles here is wind intermittency—the island experiences relatively zero wind three months out of every year. After touring the local site, we traveled up to the highlands to see the wind turbines firsthand. Precipitation prevented a full view of the site, but we were astonished by the array we could distinguish through the thickening clouds and fog. To complete our site tour and data collection, we ventured to one of the operating turbines and observed the internal electronics and generation systems modeled inside.
To raise additional awareness of the benefits and applications of renewable energy, the 100-foot MS PlanetSolar Tûranor yacht visited the islands in January. PlanetSolar’s Tûranor is the world’s largest solar-powered vessel, floating an expansive breadth of 500 square meters of solar photovoltaic panels, and it is aiming to be the first to circumvent the entire globe.
The PlanetSolar crew met with officials from the World Wildlife Federation to help develop clean energy for use in transportation, tourism, electricity generation, and fishing on the islands. Because the sun’s rays are strongest at the equator, solar energy seemed a clear choice for the Galápagos - they receive upwards of 5.5 kW per square meter each day and can reach inhabitants who live in rural off-grid areas. With earlier support for the small solar applications at the Charles Darwin Research Station, an additional $10 million donation was received from the Japanese International Cooperation System Company in July 2010. The funding will be used towards implementing a 1400-kW system on Baltra, with interconnection to Santa Cruz.
A SKEPTIC PUBLIC?
The town of Puerto Ayora has now grown to more than 10,000 people, and it will continue to be a nucleus of growth for all of the islands. While the plans to implement the projects are strong, there are little to no developmental incentives for small businesses or homes to integrate their own renewable sources. Introducing electric vehicles in Santa Cruz would also greatly benefit the reduction of fossil fuels; unfortunately, this is not currently on the drawing board.
Overall, the San Cristobal project established the first utility-scale renewable source for the islands that set precedent for future projects and continuing wind developments on the main island. We discovered that, although many of the local residents are cognizant of the importance of protecting their environment, attempts at displacing the diesel generation with renewable energy brings its own public relations battle to San Cristobal. With the slow and gradual process that is social change, residents are quick to blame the turbines for problems with the generators or any other part of their electrical grid. New technologies are frequently met with skepticism and possibly with resistance. In our experiences communicating with local residents and workers, many were critical of relying on these new energy sources. We really couldn’t help but wonder how the community’s apprehension might affect Ecuador’s energy future.
We’re impressed by continued progress on the islands, particularly given that many of these plans and promises were formulated in the months prior to the global recession. Though impressed with the initial installations, based on our findings in 2009, we remained skeptical that the plan to eliminate 100 percent of fossil fuel for electricity would be possible by the 2015 deadline. A determining factor in whether the overall project is truly successful in the long term will be whether citizens of the islands embrace the efforts to eradicate fossil fuels, or if this goal is simply a lofty dream of the international community.