Nicaragua has turned underdevelopment into a competitive advantage for clean energy

RIVAS, Nicaragua— Underdevelopment has its competitive advantages.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is easy for a country that doesn’t pollute with heavy industry. Switching the energy matrix to renewable sources is doable in a land with low power demands. And going green is simple if green has always been your natural color.

I was recently reminded of all this during a visit to the Amayo wind farm in Rivas, Nicaragua. From high atop wind turbine #29, I stood, with mild trepidation despite my safety harness, and looked out over a lovely panoramic view of glorious underdevelopment.

Reporting for @thisisfusion from the top of #Nicaragua on an Amayo wind turbine.

A post shared by Tim Rogers (@bajopatas) on

The vertical climb inside the 260-foot turbine tower was made up of a series of dizzying ladders and a claustrophobic cage elevator that banged its way up the tube with alarming grunts and moans. But the view from the top was well worth the sweaty ascent.

The horizon was lined with wind turbines spinning lazily along the shore of Lake Cocibolca. In the near distance, the twin volcanoes of Ometepe Island seemed to beckon the clouds. Everything about the view was painted in a natural palette of greens, blues, and browns. There were no smokestacks, no industry, no pollution.

Wind turbines line Lake Cocibolca with Ometepe Island in the distance

Wind turbines line Lake Cocibolca with Ometepe Island in the distance

Nicaragua may be backwards in a dozen ways, but when it comes to clean energy, the country has been dubbed “Central America’s renewable energy paradise.” Known as “the land of lakes and volcanoes,” Nicaragua’s estimated geothermal energy reserve alone would be enough to power the entire country for years to come, if exploited to its fullest potential.

Combined with wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy potential, Nicaragua has the capacity to generate an estimated 5,800 megawatts of renewable power—about five times the country’s total energy demand.

So when Nicaragua decided to launch a clean energy revolution a decade ago with the goal of moving the country to 90% renewable energy by 2020, it was a daunting endeavor that appeared to be well within the country’s reach. The fruits of that effort can be seen in Rivas, where 100 wind turbines spin along the lake (a decade ago there were none here). Together, the wind farms produce 19% of the country’s total energy demand.

Delays in a massive, Brazilian-backed hydroelectric project have set back Nicaragua’s ultimate goal of reaching 90% renewable energy until 2030, but the country has made remarkable strides to wean itself off its crippling oil dependency and increase the output of renewable energy from 30% to 53%.

That doesn’t mean Nicaragua is the perfect environmental steward. It’s not. The country has plenty of its own stupid ideas and practices when it comes to the environment, everything from burning trash and littering to a proposed interoceanic canal and a maddening urge to deforest itself with a trichotillomania-like compulsion.

But when it comes to clean energy, the country is proud of its record and pissed—PISSED—about the recent comparisons to the United States following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

By pulling out of Paris, the United States famously joins the ranks of Syria and Nicaragua as the only two other countries in the world that don’t belong to the international club of countries concerned about unfettered pollution. But Nicaragua’s reasons for not joining Paris are the opposite of Trump’s reasons. Nicaragua thinks the Paris accord doesn’t go far enough to hold big polluters like the U.S. accountable. In short, Nicaragua thinks the Paris accord is toothless, whereas Trump thinks it’s onerous.

Nicaragua’s holdout might not have been an effective form of protest, but the country wants the world to know that when it comes to clean energy, being underdeveloped is not the same as being backwards.

With or without Paris, Nicaragua has established itself as a leader in renewable energies with a level of success that has other countries green with envy.

See our full report this Tuesday night on The Feed.