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View of Los Maribios volcanic chain, Nicaragua. (Photograph by Joshua Berman)

Nicaragua Looks to Geothermal for Energy Independence

Stretching across Nicaragua’s west coast, the Maribios volcanic chain may harbor a solution to the country’s energy crisis. The power embedded in those volcanoes is being harvested through geothermal projects, which could help Nicaragua wean itself from its dependence on imported fossil fuels and meet more of its energy demand.

A report released by the Geothermal Energy Association (GEA) last month noted that only 55 percent of Nicaragua’s population is connected to the electricity grid, the lowest electricity coverage of any Central American country. At its annual showcase, however, the GEA noted that countries such as Nicaragua and Indonesia have become strong geothermal markets, thanks to national policies that support its growth.

In 2009, the Sandinista government granted concessions to two Canadian companies, Magma Energy Corp. and Polaris Geothermal Inc., which agreed to invest $50 million to develop power plants in San Jacinto and Santa Clara.

These sites convert hot water from the interior of the volcanoes into steam that runs turbines, generating electricity. It’s an appealing energy option because fuel is not required in this process, and weather conditions do not have a major impact on supply.

Nicaragua’s movement toward renewable energy initiatives has been substantial. Between 1980 and 1994, the Sandinista government didn’t make major investments in this sector, which contributed to the country’s low per-capita electricity generation.

However, President Daniel Ortega’s administration has made renewables a priority, clearing the way not only for geothermal but also wind and hydroelectric. The nation’s Ministry of Energy and Mines predicts that 51 percent of its electricity will come from renewables by 2013.

Iceland’s successful geothermal energy model was one of the major influences for Nicaragua’s new stepping stone. The Icelandic International Development Agency released a 2008 report on the results of an intergovernmental agreement that committed five years of technical assistance to Nicaragua for geothermal development.  Nicaragua also received a $40 million loan to launch the second-phase expansion of the San Jacinto-Tizate power plant, bringing its capacity to 72 megawatts. New wind and hydroelectric sites will add close to 200 megawatts more.

That capacity is just a fraction of what Nicaragua’s government estimates estimates to be at least 1,200 MW of capacity embedded in the country’s geothermal resources. Realizing even half of that potential would mean that geothermal sources could meet all of Nicaragua’s electricity demand.