As the international price of fuel rises towards all-time highs, nations, including Costa Rica, are beginning to reconsider their dependence on fossil fuels or thermal power for electricity generation.
One person that foresaw this potential crisis a quarter of a century ago is Jay Gallegos, CEO of Mesoamerica Energy, headquartered in Belén, west of San José. For the past 17 years, Gallegos has worked to provide power and electricity to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.
The company built Plantas Eólicas, the first-ever wind energy project in Central America, located in Tilarán along Lake Arenal in the northwest Alajuela province.
The Tico Times recently spoke with Gallegos. Excerpts follow:
TT: Mesoamerica is known as somewhat of a pioneer in the renewable energy field. How long have you been working in the renewable energy market?
JG: I got into renewable power about 27 years ago. I was intrigued by the possibilities of wind power and clean energy and a cutting-edge technology. I started in California and about 18 years ago we started developing this project in Costa Rica. At the time it was the first wind project ever built in Latin America. There were no professionals here that knew how to work with wind.
It was a very unique project in that respect because it required finding ways to put it all together. We had to make most of our parts for the project, such as blades. It was a very organic effort to make it successful.
We are now in our 17th year of operation and are operating very successfully. We are currently in construction of a 102-megawatt project in Honduras. Last week, the towers and many of the blades arrived. The foundations are already poured, roads are in and the project should be in full force by the end of the year. It is about half an hour south of Tegucigalpa. We are also working on a project in Guatemala, one in Nicaragua and several in Costa Rica.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in bringing renewable energy to this region?
Our company develops projects that take into account all of the stakeholders. In Honduras, for example, we put together more than 220 land-lease agreements to build the project. Many of these landowners, almost 80 percent, didn’t have titles to their land… Solely on land titling in Honduras we spent about 65,000 man-hours. A team of 14 to 18 [people] worked for almost four and a half years to negotiate with all these landowners. There are also no fences, so you have no idea who owns what.
We take into account all of the environmental issues, for example avian issues, such as the types of birds and their seasonal and migratory patterns. We also have to consider bats. We look at archaeological studies for where each of our turbines and roads will be placed. We count every tree and shrub in the area prior to construction and replace each on a 10-to-one basis.
We also have to do social analysis and understand the needs of the communities. We went door-to-door to anyone who would be impacted or would even be able to see these turbines and explained to them what a turbine does, what it sounds like, how the sound will impact their lives and what jobs will be created.
All of that is very important because there is a lot of opposition to projects. Wind projects are highly visible, it’s not like you can hide them. They are really out there. It is wonderful on the symbolic side because people see them and it does send an important message to people about our need to change the way we generate electricity and how we consume it. It is a very positive message and creates an important community identity with the project…
Costa Rica does a pretty good job of adjusting policies to allow renewable projects to establish themselves.
It seems like there are lots of risks to energy investment, such as we are currently seeing with the Diquís [hydroelectric] project in southern Costa Rica (see story on Page 1).
Similar resistance to renewable projects has also occurred in Panama and El Salvador and across the region. They are mostly hydroelectric projects, but even wind development usually comes with resistance.
Do you think the development of renewable energy is often going to be accompanied by resistance and challenges?
It absolutely is. When I talk about thinking about financing and thinking about social issues, in the renewable development business, the main difficulty is often a chicken-and-egg problem. To build a project properly, to properly engage in all of the studies it costs a lot of money. And the social issues have become increasing difficult in all the years I’ve been in this business.
A good analogy is putting a square in a circle. It is getting better. There is still a long way to go, as with any pioneering effort.
We have environmental specialists, community specialists and we are willing to take the time and spend the money and deal with the community, from the first minute we show up in a community.
Are there firms that don’t do as thorough a job and rush the process of developing renewable energy without considering the ramifications of the projects?
Absolutely. I think people learn as they go along. I think that a decade ago we didn’t do as good a job as we could have or should have. You have to learn those lessons as you go and you have to realize how it important it is to value the people affected by your projects. It takes time, patience and existential honesty. These are things that are very important, and these are people you are going to be living with for a very long time and who are going to be impacted to some degree.
In recent years and particularly in the last few months, the push for renewable energies has been a buzz phrase often used by the Costa Rican government. What has the government put in place to actually promote renewable energy?
I think that is still being worked on. There have been some proposed changes in legislation. Right now I think they are considering an interim solution, though they realize that the passage of any new energy laws is going to take years.
There has always been a lot of debate about this issue and I think Costa Rica really needs to define what path it wants to take.
Looking forward, though, it will require the private sector to step in to build some of these power plants. That is well understood and accepted, but the question is, how are you going to do that?
I’m very hopeful now that an interim solution is going to be proposed. It will be discussed in Congress during the next few days.