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What do you do when a deadly volcano sits next door? Turn it to clean energy, of course.

Powerland: Guatemala City's geothermal jackpot
July 30, 2011 - 8:41am

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — The steam rising from the Pacaya volcano and the hills and rivers surrounding it on the outskirts of Guatemala’s captial city hints at a power source that could give the country the energy security it craves.

Geothermal steam and water some 2,000 meters below the surface of the green hills and mountains is being tapped by the global alternative energy company Ormat, converted into electricity, and fed into the city's main power grid.

There are currently only two geothermal power plants in Guatemala, both owned by Ormat, but the government says there are many more opportunities under the country’s soil.

It hopes to use this power source to meet up to two-thirds of the country’s annual energy demands by 2022. Guatemala wants to wean itself off the $2 billion it spends on oil imports every year.

Accordingly, the Guatemala government is offering tax breaks on equipment brought in to build geothermal plants. It says Ormat is only tapping 20 megawatts of a potential 1000-megawatt potential lying in wait around the county. Traditional electricity plants or hydropower facilities today generate most of Guatemala’s energy.

Some consider geothermal to be one of the cleanest forms of alternative energy out there.

Yossi Shilon, Ormat’s representative in Guatemala, says; “When you use this kind of technology, as you can see, there’s no smell being dissipated, the noise is very much controlled because after those walls you won’t hear any noise outside. Whatever we take out from the production well is also re-injected into the same reservoir, so we maintain the reservoir at its very basic parameters and it is not affected by our operation.”

But there are some barriers to entry for other companies hoping to join Guatemala’s geothermal race. The development of the geothermal fields is costly and risky – the plants themselves are also expensive to build and drilling doesn’t always turn up what’s expected.

Despite those risks, Ormat plans to expand its operations in Guatemala.

And as for the government, it’s a double-bonus: tapping more geothermal power will help wean it off of foreign oil, and help it to go green at the same time.

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