San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Central Valley Wind-Power Project Planned

As the trade winds cross the Central Valley, they blow from east to west, roughly following the path carved out by the VirillaRiver. Before continuing onto the Pacific Ocean, these annual gales push over the hills southwest of San José. It is here, as the trade winds exit the Central Valley, that Dennis Mora hopes to capture this wind and turn it into clean power.

Mora, who heads the Department of Expansion Projects at the National Power and Light Company (CNFL), has planned the Central Valley’s first wind-power project, a $21 million undertaking that would erect 18 towering windmills and provide energy for an estimated 8,000 homes.

This first step for the energy company, if taken, will mean non-polluting, renewable and cheaper energy for consumers, Mora said. In addition, it would also give more stability to a national energy system heavily dependent on hydroelectric projects – dams that are facing more and more opposition from environmentalists and communities.

With the wind project’s environmental impact studies finished and approved, and the financing details being ironed out, only two hurdles remain: approval from the Comptroller General’s Office and contracting out the project to a private company for construction. If all goes according to plan, construction on the project will begin in January 2008, and the windmills would be online and producing energy two years later under CNFL’s management.

The windmills, each 45 meters tall with propellers measuring 50 meters in diameter, would be installed on hilltop land outside the community of Pabellón, southwest of San José, on the outskirts of Santa Ana. Together, they would add 15.3 megawatts (MW) to CNFL’s 88.2 MW of electricity infrastructure, all located in the Central Valley. On the national level, wind power supplies 3.3% of the nation’s energy; though this would be CNFL’s first wind power project.

The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), a government agency, has a monopoly on electricity production and distribution in Costa Rica – with a few exceptions. CNFL is owned by ICE, yet is a separate agency with a concession to produce and distribute electricity for most of the Central Valley. With 480,000 clients, CNFL’s area of service represents approximately 50% of the electricity demand nationwide. Geographically, it covers from Barva de Heredia in the north, to Ciudad Colón in the southwest, and from Tres Rios in the east to Alajuela in the northwest, Mora explained.

Mora enthusiastically pointed out the energy produced at the Pabellón site would cost ¢3.3 per kilowatt-hour – that is, for one kilowatt of electricity produced for one hour. ICE currently sells energy to CNFL at ¢5.2 per kilowatt-hour.While the lower cost would not be transferred immediately to CNFL’s clients, it would give them a cushion against cost increases on ICE’s end, he explained.

In addition, wind power complements CNFL’s all-hydroelectric infrastructure as well as the national infrastructure, which is 67.4% hydroelectric. The hydroelectric dams generate electricity thanks to the heavy rainfall that Costa Rica receives during the rainy season, filling rivers that plunge through the dams’ generators and produce electricity (TT,May 26).

However, during Costa Rica’s dry season (December-April) the rivers shrink, and power output shrinks as well. If hydroelectric power dips too much on a national level, ICE fires up its thermal plants, which burn fossil fuels, or has to import energy at a much higher cost from neighboring countries.

One of the benefits of wind power, Mora explained, is that it is precisely during the dry season when wind is the strongest, giving the nation’s energy producers a buffer against the less appealing options of burning fossil fuels or importing energy.

Many environmentalists also push wind power as an alternative to hydroelectric power, which is facing a growing opposition in Costa Rica and around the world. Many oppose the construction of more dams based on a long list of environmental and social reasons, including concerns for the animal life and communities that depend on rivers that are dammed (TT,May 26).

Working with the Community

The Pabellón site, Mora said, is the best in the Central Valley because it receives the strongest, most consistent wind over the longest period of time. With an altitude of 1,804 meters, the site gets an average wind speed of 7.3 meters per second, higher than the minimum 6 meters per second needed to produce electricity, he explained. During the dry season, however, monthly average wind speeds jump as high as 15 meters per second.

As part of the project, CNFL has begun working with the community, said Rocío Morera, who heads up CNFL’s community participation program

“Normally, what CNFL does is identify in the communities what they need and how they might be affected,” she said.

According to Morera, the community in general won’t be greatly affected by the project, and the area residents have been receptive to the idea. Meanwhile, CNFL has carried out some environmental and business workshops, is working to improve lighting and electricity coverage in the area, and is having signs made to help combat poaching and illegal logging, a problem local residents have complained bout,Morera said.

Hugo Sibaja, a 59-year-old cattle rancher who owns a large swath of land where some the windmills would be built, says he became interested in wind power five years ago and installed equipment to begin measuring the wind potential on his property.

“I was the pioneer there who started the idea,” Sibaja claimed. “I am interested because I believe it is a very good project…

We are going to produce energy without harming the environment.”

Sibaja plans to rent an estimated 4,000 square meters of his land to the developers to install some of the windmills, and will be able to continue to graze his cattle on the property, he said.

Planning For Growth

The windmills are part of CNFL’s Expansion Plan, which charts the company’s course during the next 10 years in terms of what projects it will build to keep up with demand, which on the national level is growing at slightly more than 5% a year.

The CNFL 2005-2016 Expansion Plan includes nine projects – seven hydroelectric dams and two wind-power projects – that will add 246 MW to the national electrical infrastructure, currently at 2,101 MW, according to Francisco Garro, who helps monitor electricity supply and demand at ICE.

The total estimated cost for the nine projects is nearly $460 million. Besides the Central Valley windmills, the other CNFL wind energy project is called San Buenaventura, and is still in the pre-planning phase as officials are reviewing whether it is feasible or not. Similar in size, it would be installed near Miramar, east of the Pacific port town of Puntarenas. Potential construction, however, isn’t being forecasted until 2010.

CNFL Administrative Director Marvin Céspedes said the company is still in theprocess of finalizing the details of the Central Valley project’s financing. What is clear, he said, is that the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI) will cover most of the costs. As it looks now, Céspedes continued, CNFL would put up about $2 million of the $21 million, and get the rest from CABEI. Under what type of repayment scheme CNFL would pay back the money, however, is still being figured out.

Once the financing structure is established, the project will be passed to the Comptroller General’s Office for final approval. Céspedes said he expects the project will be approved with little difficulty.

Once approved, the CNFL would put the project up for bidding on the international market, seeking a company to design the project based on CNFL’s plans, build it, install it and provide maintenance.

Once the windmills are up and spinning, CNFL would manage their day-to-day operations.

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