Panama’s Hydropower Development Defined By Fierce Resistance and Tough Choices

The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama's electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider
The concrete 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam began operations in 2011 and enhancing Panama’s electrical generating capacity. It also formed a big backwater lake, drove 1,000 villagers from their homes, and ignited years of cultural strife. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHANGUINOLA, Panama – Rain clouds regularly settle atop the 1800-meter (5900-foot) summits of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. When the mist clears, the full measure of the blue sea, powerful rivers, and splendid forests full of toucans and cacao trees is visible and stunning.

In the five centuries since Christopher Columbus alighted on the beaches of Bocas del Toro in 1502, western Panama’s water-rich tropical bounty has enticed outsiders, built financial fortunes, and led to periodic and fierce popular resistance. In 1899, for instance, American growers tore down tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest and planted the trees that produced the Chiquita-brand bananas that are still shipped from the port at Almirante. From time to time, including a violent confrontation with government security forces in 2010 that left one person dead, Chiquita’s unionized workers organized big disturbances and determined strikes over wages and working conditions.

That same stubborn spirit, widespread across this province of 126,000 residents, still animates the region. It stirs a decade-long battle in the Changuinola River watershed driven by the construction of hydropower projects and by Panama’s shifting views about energy production, economic growth, social fairness, and the value of its prodigious wild forests and water resources. No other Central American country is reckoning with these often-conflicting features of national life with as much consideration and consequence as Panama.

Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country's most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Chiriqui Province in western Panama, site of the country’s most aggressive dam development. Photo/Keith Schneider

“This is an exciting period for this country,” said Osvaldo Jordan, a 43-year-old biologist and political scientist educated in the United States who leads the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a human rights organization in Panama City.

“Twenty-five years ago we were a military dictatorship. Fifteen years ago we gained control of the Panama Canal. The last ten years our economy has grown so fast. We have choices to make. There are different definitions for defining modernity. The biggest challenge for Panama is to find the right definition.”

Unrest Over Water Power
For many of Bocas del Toro’s indigenous citizens the definition does not include big hydropower projects.

Since 2003, the tiny Naso indigenous community has fought to a standstill construction of the 33-megawatt Bonyic dam on the Teribe River, a tributary of the Changuinola. The project, undertaken by Hidro-Teribe, a subsidiary of Colombian public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín, also is opposed by Panamanian and Costa Rican environmental organizations because of its proximity to La Amistad International Park. The 401,000-hectare (1,550 square miles) park spans the Costa Rica-Panama border, protects countless species of tropical plants and wildlife, and is the largest nature reserve in Central America.

Not far away, Ngobe villagers are organizing to halt construction of Changuinola II, a 213-megawatt, $US 1.1 billion dam that Panama has approved in a bend of the Changuinola where the free-flowing river cuts between high cliffs of white limestone. Norberto Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, gained government permission this month to build the project, which indigenous villagers say they intend to stop.

Both resistance campaigns are informed by the consequences to the river and native villages from building the $US 630 million, 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam. The AES Corporation, a Virginia-based global energy developer, opened the dam and its power station in 2011 after four years of construction that generated active protests and long blockades of construction routes. The dissent attracted international attention and a rebuke from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission before it was put down by national security forces, which beat protestors bloody.

“Nothing good came from what happened here,” said Bernadino Morales, a 27-year-old college graduate and protest organizer whose family farm was inundated by the 1,400-hectare (5.5-square mile) backwater lake behind the dam. “The river is gone. One thousand people were forced to move. A lot of forest is under water.”

Neither AES executives nor Panama government authorities responded to phone and email requests for interviews for this article.  In published reports and prior interviews with Panama reporters, dam developers and regulators insist that they are building projects according to high standards of environmental protection and with regard to fairly compensating families forced to move.

The dam developers also note that they are performing a national service. Panama, they say, needs the power. And water-powered electricity prevents millions of tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere that otherwise would be produced from the same levels of oil- and coal-fired electrical generating capacity. Government statistics indicate that the carbon savings from the Changuinola I dam alone amounts to over 600,000 metric tons a year, or approximately the level of carbon pollution produced by a coal-fired  fossil thermal power plant of similar size.

Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider
Tomas Villagro, a Ngobe villager, mourns the loss of th free flowing river, the forest land submerged, and the disruption caused by the Changuinola I dam backwater. He describes the torment of the loss as so deep it feels like grief. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Panama’s Hydropower Development Defined By Fierce Resistance and Tough Choices”

Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore

Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand's hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider
Six months after a Himalyan flood that may have killed 30,000 people and wrecked Uttarakhand’s hydropower sector, Sonprayag presents heart-rending evidence of the disaster. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Reporting on a righteous disaster, one that unfolds in the various stages of direct impact, colossal damage, rising body counts, and fiercesome cost, always comes with the mandatory account of warnings issued and ignored. Ten days ago a mountain slope collapsed north of Seattle, unleashing a river of mud on a rural community, killing over 20 people and causing an estimated $10 million in damage to property. It is said to be one of the worst landslides in American history.

While visiting my mother in Manhattan over the weekend, she recounted these details and also noted: “You know, there were warnings. The people said they never got them.”

Aah. American landslide as global metaphor.

In the work to define accountability, I explained, the issued warnings and the culpability of local officials who did not deliver them is sure to be the stuff of courtroom testimony. But in the real world of Washington State or just about any other place in America, had those warnings actually been issued and gained attention they would have attracted nothing but political outrage.

Property owners in the hillside’s shadow would have pelted local officials with sharp rhetorical objects designed to shut off communication, preserve property values, and keep insurance costs down. Where was the scientific proof of an impending collapse, they would have asked. How could their local leaders put property values in such jeopardy? Nobody would want to invest in their land and homes if the claims of impending disaster persisted.

What about that 2006 partial collapse? See, it was no big deal. The hillside hardly moved.

And then it did — at the speed of a flood. A square mile of land at the hill’s bottom was covered in mud, in places 70 feet thick. That’s deep enough to entomb most of the missing.

The Snohomish County landslide occurred at the same time the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the latest of its scientific studies on the rising consequences of the Earth’s warming atmosphere.

As you’ve read here with magnifying urgency, the Earth is not playing around. It’s pushing back hard against industrial depradations, carbon pollution, population growth, and mismanagement of every kind. Continue reading “Warnings — They Are So Easy To Ignore”

Abu Dhabi Slowly Pursues A Water-Conserving, Cleaner Energy Path

Architects are having a field day designing  the energy-efficient, showcase buildings of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo/Keith Schneider
Architects are having a field day designing the energy-efficient, showcase buildings of Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Photo/Keith Schneider

ABU DHABI — Just across an expanse of sand and highway, close to this capital city’s airport, lies a collection of modern buildings promoted here as the example incarnate of what’s possible when a nation fueled by oil decides that the supply of its primary natural and economic resource is finite.

It’s a beginning. But just that. A beginning. Masdar City, as it’s called, is a state-sponsored planned development that isn’t yet close to being a city. Masdar City also stretches a few other bounds of credibility in its marketing message.

The collection of structures is promoted as a global showcase of sustainable innovation, a prime international laboratory of energy-efficient construction, water-saving applications, and clean energy development. But other than the big solar array at the development’s entrance it’s hard to tell whether any of those assets actually are in place.

There was no sight of the transit system that is said to exist here to move people in, out, and around the development. Reported to already have attracted “thousands” of workers and residents, the day I visited the dark lobbies and empty retail spaces of the development’s buildings, as well as its shaded walkways, were largely empty. There were more people hovering about Masdar City’s marketing installation at the Abu Dhabi exhibition hall here than were visible in the actual Masdar City.

What is apparent is what Gulf nations do very well – design and construct extravagant and beautiful buildings. In Masdar City’s interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly land use patterns, and its updated Arabic-design cooling system is the interest this nation and its Arabian Gulf neighbors are displaying in diversifying their economies. All of the Gulf nations are talking about and making investments in clean energy development and water conservation practices to 1) improve their standing in the world, and 2) make a sustained run at keeping their energy-stoked civilizations healthy.

The latter is the real challenge — a race against time, demographic trends, petroleum-derived wealth, and climate change.

This bone-dry region is getting dryer. The population is rising, both within the native resident communities and from the tens of millions of contracted migrant laborers from Nepal and China, India, the Philippines, Bengladesh, Eastern Europe, and America who are needed to make the country operate. The growing Gulf economies are sucking up more of their own domestic oil and natural gas reserves to construct and operate the domestic infrastructure, to fuel fleets of cars and planes, and to power the electric plants that keep interiors cool during the summer inferno, and to desalinate the Gulf’s salty water. It takes an ocean of fuel to keep it all running.

The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, completed in 2007, is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, completed in 2007, is large enough to hold 40,000 worshippers. Photo/Keith Schneider

Saudi Arabia, which desalinates more water than any other country, produces 6 million cubic meters of fresh water daily from two seas. Saudis burn oil to produce the heat and energy to convert seawater to fresh water. Saudi demand for fresh water is so large and rising so fast that desalination is one of the factors in a worrying calculation made public last year by Gulf nation researchers. Unless some factor changes in Saudi demand trends for energy, water, transportation fuels, and cooling, the world’s largest oil exporter will use so much of its own oil and production capacity to serve its own economy that by the early 2030s it ceases oil exports. American bank economists have reached the same conclusion. Continue reading “Abu Dhabi Slowly Pursues A Water-Conserving, Cleaner Energy Path”

Ontario Shuts Its Coal Plants

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Among the countries tied to coal-fired power is China, which certainly can learn from Ontario’s program to phase the dirtiest fuel out of its generating sector. Here a coal-fired plant operates in Urumqi in western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Photo/Keith Schneider

As recently as 2007, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a research unit of the U.S. Department of Energy, projected that the fuel mix for producing electricity in the U.S. would persist largely unchanged through 2035. According to that estimate, a little more than half of the country’s electricity would come from coal, about 20 percent from nuclear plants, and a little less than 20 percent from natural gas; the balance, roughly 12 percent, would be generated from wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower.

A lot changed over the last five years. In 2012, according to the EIA, U.S. utilities burned 815 million tons of coal for electricity, down from over 1 billion tons in 2005, and the lowest utility coal consumption since 1990. Less than 38 percent of the country’s electricity last year came from coal. As recently as 2009 it was 53 percent. In its most recent assessment, the EIA projects that 49,000 megawatts of coal-fired power — equal to 50 big plants, and 15 percent of existing coal-fired capacity in 2012 – will be retired over the next seven years.

Replacing coal is a surge of plants fueled by natural gas and wind. Last year, gas supplied 29.9 percent of U.S. electricity, up from 23 percent in 2009. And in 2012, with 13.2 megawatts installed nationally (equivalent to 13 big coal-fired plants), wind energy accounted for 42 percent of the nation’s new electrical generating capacity, more than coal and natural gas combined. Texas, of all places, generates over 9 percent of its electricity with 12,200 megawatts of installed wind capacity.

The U.S. transition to cleaner energy sources, particularly in the electrical sector, reflects a trend unfolding with gathering momentum in many industrialized nations.

Electricity generated from renewable energy sources contributed almost one fifth — 19.9 percent — of the European Union’s electricity in 2010, according to commission statistics. From 2000 to 2010, the number of gigawatts of electricity generated from biomass in EU nations more than tripled. During the same decade, the number of gigs generated by wind turbines increased almost seven-fold. A gigawatt is 1 billion watts.

Now comes Ontario, Canada and a new narrative of electrical transition that pushes the envelope of what is possible in the drive to quit the coal-fired power generating business. I’ve reported on the provincial energy program in 2007 here on ModeShift. Today Yale Environment 360 posted my newest piece on Ontario’s transition to cleaner energy sources.

By most measures of environmental policy and progress, Ontario, Canada ranks well. Over the last half-century, Canada’s most populous province required cities and industries to treat every gallon of wastewater, dramatically reduced the level of sulfur and other pollutants that caused acid rain, and convinced the big and politically powerful pulp and paper industry to install state-of-the-art emissions control equipment.

Next year, though, Ontario is scheduled to complete a 21st century environmental cleanup project that distinguishes it among North American jurisdictions. After a decade of work by the Liberal Party government, Ontario at the end of this year is scheduled to close the last of its big coal-fired generators, and leave a single small coal-fired unit available during periods of peak electrical demand until it closes next year. In shutting down the province’s 19 boilers fueled by coal, Ontario will become the first industrial region on the continent to eliminate coal-fired generation.

Continue reading “Ontario Shuts Its Coal Plants”

Frack Or Not To Frack? That’s Just One Question

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At the corner of US 31 and County Line Road in Benzie County, one of the more than 9,000 Antrim Shale natural gas wells drilled in Michigan since the late 1980s. Michigan’s Antrim Shale was among the first natural gas reserves in the U.S. developed from hydrocarbon-bearing shales. Photo/Heather Rousseau

BENZONIA, MI — It’s apparent why a great number of Americans wonder about the risks of fracking and whether states and the federal government ought to shut the technology down. The breakthrough that now enables developers to recover oil and natural gas from hydrocarbon-rich shales 6,000 to 10,000 feet beneath the surface is potentially fraught with danger.

No new technology comes without assorted risks, especially one as environmentally significant and economically powerful as fracking. But along with the risks come benefits. The question is whether the U.S. has the capacity to significantly reduce the threats through regulatory safeguards, or is there one or more aspects of the technology that are so inherently dangerous that fracking should not be allowed at all?

Answering the question involves distinguishing the difference between “potential” and “actual” risks and benefits. On the potential side of the discussion, the risks seem fearsome.

The fracking process blasts millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals down a well at ultra-high pressure to shatter the rock and release the fuel. Anecdotal evidence, and several instances of contamination confirmed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, point to a risk that fracking can contaminate freshwater aquifers much closer to the surface. It’s not clear yet how significant that risk is, though the EPA is studying the issue and preparing to issue a definitive report next year.

Public health authorities in Pennsylvania also are starting to study the consequences of fracking to human health, and are focusing on air pollution. Big diesel engines operate at the well sites, and it takes roughly 2,000 truck trips to transport water, fuel, and equipment to each well. Vehicular collisions, moreover, have taken the lives of dozens of truck drivers and motorists in North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

Fracking takes millions of gallons of water at each well and is leading to confrontations over water supply on the Great Plains and desert Southwest. Disposing wastewater and fluids from the process has led to spills in North Dakota and Wyoming. Pumping the wastes down deep disposal wells also has caused small earthquakes in Ohio, Arkansas, and Texas. The concentration of wells in a region, all tied together by new roads, pipeline corridors, and assorted processing and pumping stations, has significant implications for the uses of land, particularly if the development occurs in a forested area like Michigan.

Other potential risks identified by expert panels as varied as the U.S. General Accounting Office and the Society of Petroleum Engineers include the toxicity of the chemicals used in the process, the level of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) that can escape the well as “fugitive” emissions, and the hazards of the drilling process; in China the shale reserves contain high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, an acutely poisonous gas.

Continue reading “Frack Or Not To Frack? That’s Just One Question”