Coca Codo Sinclair, courtesy of Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ecuador Needs to Expand Beyond Hydroelectric Power

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On the surface, Ecuador’s reliance on hydroelectric projects seems to be fulfilling the promise that was made in the country’s 2008 Constitution. This document endorses federal support for clean energy adoption in Article 15, stating: “The State shall promote, in the public and private sectors, the use of environmentally clean technologies and non-polluting and low-impact alternative sources of energy.” As of 2021, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Energy reported that 92% of electricity generation came from hydroelectric plants, of which there are 16 across the country.

The country continues to work towards the goal of a green economy, with a 2031 Electricity Master Plan that calls for a 500 MW combination of clean energy projects across the country. However, The Electrification Master Plan 2013–2022 (Plan Maestro de Electricidad) made it clear that these renewable projects would continue to be focused on hydroelectric plants. This plan approved 25 hydropower projects that are planned to total 4.2 GW (gigawatts) of new capacity by 2022. In comparison, this plan allocated only 217 MW (megawatts) for “solar, wind, and other non-conventional renewables.”

Coca Codo Sinclair dam, courtesy of Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This commitment to hydroelectric power created a renewable energy market wherein wind, solar, and other renewable energy projects make up only 1% of electricity generation. Despite the country being home to three utility-scale solar farms and three wind energy sites, Ecuador is desperately reliant on its hydroelectric facilities. The dangers of being too heavily invested in hydroelectric become clear when using the Coca Codo Sinclair Power Plant as a case study. With a cost of more than $3.2 billion and construction beginning more than 16 years ago, the government at the time hoped this plant would serve to power a new wave of industrialization in Ecuador. However, the initial studies done in 1992 to confirm feasibility proved to be inadequate, and Luis Torres, a Quito-based geologist and advisor, argues that “To date, the power plant still lacks vulnerability and risk studies.” The lack of understanding on the environmental impact associated with this project has been underscored by the erosion of the Coca River.

Coca Codo Sinclair hydropower plant, courtesy of Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The erosion that occurred due to the drying of the San Rafael waterfall in February of 2020 threatens the diversion reservoir and will require risk assessment for the plant. As Fabricio Yépez, a professor of civil engineering in Quito, argued “This type of project needs technical decisions in order to avoid suffering millions in losses.” A country such as Ecuador, that is reliant on foreign capital for clean energy investments, should be wary of projects within the country that continuously sap resources without performing at the expected output. The struggles with the plant do not end with environmental concerns, as the Corporación Eléctrica del Ecuador (Celec) filed legal action against the inspector of the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant on July 15, 2022. Celec claims this inspector approved the receipt of equipment from the plant despite having defects.

Central Hidroeléctrica Coca Codo Sinclair durante su construcción, amalavida.tv, Creative Commons AttributionShare Alike 2.0

Coca Codo is not the only example of hydroelectric plants facing delays and infrastructure problems. Only one hydropower plant came online between 2020–2022. The Toachi Pilatón project, which was supposed to provide 254.4 MW of power capacity, has only inaugurated one of its three plants, as it is 13 years behind schedule. As of April 2022, this project has cost $920 million, and has provided a fraction of the expected energy.

While the problems that accompany hydroelectric plants mean a failure to provide promised electricity across Ecuador, the silver lining may be a commitment to previously underutilized sources of energy. On April 30, 2022, Ecuador’s President, Guillermo Lasso, approved the Villonaco III Wind Project, which will become the largest wind power plant in Ecuador. This plant required $181 million of investment, all coming from direct foreign investors. A report from Mordor Intelligence also expected a solar compound annual growth rate of 12% between 2019–2028. It is worth noting, however, that solar and wind projects, including the Villonaco Wind and Aromo Solar projects, which were awarded in December 2020, have not signed construction contracts. However, when compared to the decade of delays faced by hydroelectric initiatives, these new renewable sources have the potential to cement themselves as future sources of electricity generation.

Ecuador has an estimated 660 MW of solar power capacity. With the significant decline in solar panel costs, the feasibility of solar investment in Ecuador has grown significantly. Juan Peralta, a renewable energy specialist and professor of mechanical engineering in Quito, believes that solar has the upper hand over both wind and hydroelectric in future investment and installation due to location, simplicity of implementation, and lowering costs.

Wind could also provide a source of sustainable and consistent energy for underutilized areas of Ecuador. There is an estimated short-term wind potential of 884 MW, which could be utilized in mountainous regions such as Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. This underscores previous concerns with hydroelectric power. With the difficulty of installing hydroelectric plants, and the high cost of installing plants in locations that are hard to access, the locations that are preferable for installation are already being used. The current hydroelectric plants are primarily in the east of the country, along the Andes mountain range. Peralta believes that the remaining locations that are feasible for hydropower are in the Amazon, adding additional cost and difficulty of installation.

There is no question that hydropower has been good to Ecuador. However, diversifying the energies used within Ecuador could prepare the country for ramifications of climate change. As Rafael Soria, a researcher and professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito argued, “The idea is to diversify the energy mix so as not to depend on a single resource that could be affected in the long term by climate change.” In the case of hydroelectric, that means water; and as we have seen in the case of the Coca Codo project, this is a very real threat as Ecuador is currently in drought. By diversifying energy sources, Ecuador can provide insurance against the problems that arise when too reliant on hydroelectric power.

Featured photo: Coca Codo Sinclair, courtesy of Ministerio de Turismo Ecuador, via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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Otto Gunderson

Otto graduated from the University of Virginia class of 2022 with a degree in history. He has been involved in clean energy, specifically solar and circular economic practices, for four years now and has been writing about clean energy for 2 years. Due to a lack of writing on the clean energy transitions in South America and Africa, Otto decided to spend his 2023 traveling across these continents, interviewing clean energy entrepreneurs, researchers, and disruptors and publishing their stories.

Otto Gunderson has 31 posts and counting. See all posts by Otto Gunderson