Geo-thermal projects in Latin America

Nov 25, 1996 01:00 AM

Sixteen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have launched a project to develop geothermal energy -- until now virtually ignored as an alternative to fossil fuels. The project involves experts of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLA) and the European Union (EU) in the preparation of a future program of technical assistance and horizontal co-operation. The aim of the ECLA-EU project -- which will last one year in its first stage -- is to draw up a national model for policy in geo-thermal resources for Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and St. Lucia.Geo-thermal energy is an abundant resource in Latin America, a region with thousands of volcanos, numerous geysers and other sources of thermal activity. In the decade of the 1970s, pushed by the rise in oil prices, the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Peru commissioned exploratory studies on geo-thermal resources, with the aim of putting that form of non-contaminating energy to work. These initiatives, however, were abandoned in the 1980s, when the price of petroleum declined and the international energy market went back to "normal," with a supply of "abundant and cheap" energy. South American countries opted to abandon geo-thermal energy projects and pursue other alternative energy sources, and developed large hydroelectric projects and tapped into their natural gas and carbon deposits. Central America was hit harder by the oil crisis, given the absence of its own production of crude or natural gas, the scarcity of carbon and a geography without large rivers for the construction of hydroelectric dams. Central American countries thus took on the development of geo-thermal projects, which today meet 38 percent of the demand for electricity in El Salvador and 10 percent in Costa Rica. Nicaragua, where there are also many volcanoes, has had a geo-thermal plant since 1982, and the country is expected to increase the use of that source to meet its energy needs.The justification of the ECLA-EU study points out that for a Latin American and the Caribbean, geo-thermal energy constitutes a relevant source in the context of sustainable development, based on the rational use of natural resources. This source should become a priority in the plans for energy reforms that the region will face, both for economic reasons as well as environmental ones, in a world that is increasingly leaving behind the "era of petroleum." A previous ECLA study points out that in the next 25 years, Latin America will see large investments in the petroleum sector, aimed mostly at exploiting natural gas and building extensive transnational pipe lines. According to the perspective of sustainable development, the policy of building large hydroelectric dams is also viewed critically, because of their negative impact on the environment, on river resources, and on the ecosystems affected by those large works. These considerations have led to the exploration of alternative energy sources that are renewable and non-contaminating such as wind, the sun, the tides, and the heat coming from the earth. Of all these sources, geo-thermal energy is the one with the most possibilities in Latin America, not only because of its abundance, but also it will also favour local development, create jobs, and save foreign currently. There is also vast experience in the use of this resource in Europe and Chile, which will also be advantageous in the transfer of technology, and open up spaces for the horizontal co-operation between the EU and Latin America and the Caribbean.

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