Energy & Mining

Powerful Momentum

Barro Blanco hydroelectric project

Although the project's planning and execution process has not been without its setbacks, Panama's Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam progresses ever closer to becoming operational and rejuvenating an area marked by poor access to utilities.

Designated as a strategic project in line with the government’s aim to diversify Panama’s energy mix, the government has forged ahead with the construction of the $140 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam in Chiriquí­. However, it has not been without controversy. Extensive protests by local indigenous communities have led to long delays in the project’s execution, which is set to become operational in June 2016.

In 2007, Generadora del Istmo S.A. (GENISA) was given the rights by Panama’s Public Services Authority (ASEP) to explore the possibility of developing a hydropower generation project on the Tabasara river, located in Tolé on the eastern part of Chiriquí­ province. Following feasibility studies, a portion of the river was declared suitable for the development of a dam. The turnkey project was contracted out to Spanish firm Cobra Instalaciones and a contract was signed in 2009 for the design, construction, procurement, and commissioning of the civil as well as electro-mechanical works. It was agreed that the project’s integration with the ETESA electrical system would also be carried out by Cobra, and construction of the dam began in 2011.

The strategic hydroelectric project is aligned with the government’s efforts to diversify the country’s energy mix and create a new source of sustainable and renewable energy to meet Panama’s growing energy needs. Projected positive spillover effects include tourism around the new lake, which could become part of a national park, and the development of fisheries in the reservoir. Among the other benefits of the project, GENISA highlights an increase in flood protection, with the contention dam having the ability to act as a buffer. In addition, construction of the project has generated between 300-500 jobs, a portion of which will later be required during the operation of the dam. “We hope that entrepreneurs will utilize the momentum of the project to create new businesses and restaurants,” Aldo López, General Manager of GENISA, said. GENISA is also committed to improving living conditions through electrification of neighboring areas, where rates are low due to their remoteness. Similarly, road infrastructure will be improved in order to increase access to the site. “Over the past eight years, we have been developing a large amount of social programs in conjunction with local leaders, sponsors, and also development banks, such as the German Investment Corporation (DEG), the Dutch Development Bank (FMO), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI),” López added.

“We believe we will satisfy those who were opposed to this project once they see the benefits of having such a potential energy source as well as a beautiful water reservoir and new business and job opportunities,” López explained. As of January 2016, the project is at 98% completion. Once operational, the project will provide 150 GW of energy, enough to power between 30,000-35,000 homes and improve access for 75,000 people.

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