San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New power plant responds to growing demand

Three years from now, most of the country’s hydroelectric dams will face a 20 percent decrease in water levels. As a consequence, Costa Rica’s power supply may not meet the needs of increasing consumer demand.

Energy sector officials and political leaders have united to promote new infrastructure and legal reforms to ensure constant power supply through 2014.

The first step in meeting this goal is the recent inauguration of the Garabito thermal power generation plant, located in Montes de Oro, in the Pacific province of Puntarenas. With an electricity generating capacity of 200 MW – enough tzo provide power to 80,000 families – the plant will produce 8 percent of the country’s total electricity production, which currently totals 2,400 MW.

The Garabito plant will operate with bunker fuel, the cheapest fuel on the market, according to plant administrator Eduardo Longhan. By using bunker fuel, the plant will save more than 30 percent of cost compared to diesel-operated plants. 

In 2010, Costa Rica spent $176 million to buy diesel thermal plants to meet the country’s electricity needs. The new plant will drop this year’s projected cost down to $123 million.

“This is a high-tech thermal plant,” said Eduardo Doryan, executive president of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE). “The plant serves as an insurance policy that guarantees electricity even in times of drought.”

The German company MAN Diesel and Turbo was contracted to build the plant, which took 10 years. The plant is fully automated and only requires 5 employees to operate it.

While the Garabito plant will save money by using cheaper fuel, its output of air pollutants cannot be fully eliminated, a fact that doesn’t sit well with President Laura Chinchilla’s campaign pledge to promote cleaner energy sources.

“This plant gives us the peace of mind required to focus on developing renewable energy sources,” said Teófilo de la Torre, Minister of Environment, Energy and Telecommunications. “We must also take into consideration that while thermal energy produces pollution, this particular plant is more environmentally friendly [than others].”

Garabito Energy Plant 2

The plant will be capable of producing 200 MW of energy to fill a projected shortage.

Jessica Phelps

The Garabito plant has an air filtration system that retains 98 percent of the pollutant particles found in gases released into the environment.

“That’s why the smoke from the chimneys is all white,” said Longhan. “Another important feature is its excellent noise control. Even at maximum performance, noise remains at acceptable levels.”

Although the Garabito plant will increase the overall electricity generating capacity in the country and will also serve to help prepare for dry summers, other emergency measures will be implemented in order to address declining water levels at the country’s major hydroelectric sites.

On Tuesday, President Chinchilla sent the Legislative Assembly a “contingency” bill that seeks to avoid potential blackouts, which, according to ICE, may begin happening by 2014.

The bill also seeks to encourage the participation of small private generators that currently sell electricity to ICE, increasing the country’s power capacity by 400 MW.

Currently, ICE is authorized to purchase up to 15 percent of the country’s total power production from private generators. The bill would increase that percentage to 25 percent.

In addition, each private generator would be able to build up to 30 MW power plants, 10 MW more than what is currently allowed.

Chinchilla said that the electricity contingency proposal is urgently needed. She also said it is less complex then a prior bill, the General Electricity Bill, which has stalled in Congress since it was first submitted in August 2010.

The General Electricity Bill seeks to create a power-generation market where private companies are able to sell energy to any interested client, not only to ICE. In addition, small electricity producers would be able to sell power to other countries through ICE’s network.

However, the bill has lacked support from opposition lawmakers (TT, April 15). It is currently under discussion in a special legislative commission, where it will likely remain during the next six months.

Failure to pass the bill could cause power shortages in the future, said Alfonso Pérez, National Liberation Party lawmaker and president of the legislative commission reviewing the bill.

“The contingency plan is the key to avoid blackouts in coming years,” he said.

The emergency bill has a better chance of passing Congress since it only increases private participation already allowed under current laws, according to Pérez.

“Costa Rica is required to generate as much [energy] in the next 10 years as it has been generating in the last 60 years,” said Chinchilla in a press release. “We must move forward in order to ensure not only that electricity supply will meet the growing needs of our society, but also that costs will be competitive and we remain committed to renewable energy sources.”

The contingency plan also aims to reduce bureaucracy that future electricity producers might face, and it could help decrease the country’s dependence on oil.

“If this bill is not approved, we will have to rely on thermal, polluting energy or face blackouts in the short-term,” said De La Torre. “I hope lawmakers understand how urgent this matter is. This is an emergency fix that will provide us with enough time to discuss broader reforms in the energy sector.”

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