An abandoned refinery in the design phase makes room for the installation of a solar plant. But there are many concerns that the new infrastructure could cause local rivers to dry up and disturb wildlife.
In El Aromo, the locals say, the sun is generous all year round. The dry forest area, on the north coast of Ecuador, near the city of Manta, in the province of Manabí, has an average temperature of 23°C throughout the year. About 700 people live here and make their living from agriculture, fishing and livestock.
But in 2008, the inhabitants of this peaceful place saw their peace of mind broken. Promising jobs and economic growth, Rafael Correa’s government announced plans for a major oil project, the Pacific Refinery. Around 1,200 hectares of forest were cleared, affecting the local climate and expelling endangered species such as the margay (a small wild cat native to Central and South America) and the white-tailed deer.
Failed project: abandoned refinery
But the refinery never saw the light of day because the government was unable to find funds. An official report on the project plan found numerous irregularities, including that the state lacked the necessary environmental permits and lost millions of dollars through corruption.
Another factor was the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013. The former Venezuelan leader and Correa’s strategic ally had agreed to finance 49% of the work through the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
With no money, the refinery dream turned into an impossible nightmare. The facilities were abandoned and narco-terrorist organizations found a useful airstrip in that deforested area.
Now, 15 years later, the government of Guillermo Lasso has found a solution to the white elephant of Manabí by naming this abandoned refinery.
where the sun warms
In late 2022, the government announced it would sign a 20-year contract with Spanish company Solarpackteam to build and operate a solar plant on part of the abandoned refinery. The photovoltaic plant will generate 200 megawatts, enough to cover 60% of Manta’s electrical demand, or the entire province’s electricity consumption, according to official estimates.
The El Aromo photovoltaic project will be the most important of its kind in Ecuador to date, according to the Ministry of Energy.
“The company is investing approximately US$ 144 million in the construction of the developmentsaid Enith Carrión, Ecuador’s deputy minister of electricity and renewable energy. “They will arrange all the investment, all the civil and mechanical works, etc.”, he said and added that the Ecuadorian State will pay 0.6 cents for each kilowatt of energy delivered per hour. After 20 years, the plant will be transferred to the state.
The contract stipulates that all unskilled workers employed by the company must come from the region and at least 75% of those hired for the construction, operation and maintenance stages must be Ecuadorian nationals.
CO2 reduction at the site of an abandoned refinery
According to the Ministry of Energy, the project will result in the reduction of 221 thousand tons of CO2 per year by allowing the country to reduce the use of regional oil plants. It will also avoid the use of around 100 million liters of diesel per year for power generation and transport, equivalent to the consumption of around 5,000 buses.
The El Aromo area has excellent solar energy potential. Official measurements register a daily average of 4.5 kilowatt-hours of energy per square meter, with higher peaks in March and April.
The Spanish company will install solar panels on around 300 of the 1,200 hectares that were cleared over a decade ago to build the refinery. On site and on other adjacent land, the company will also build internal roads and all the necessary infrastructure for the plant to start generating and distributing energy.
The Spanish company will also build an 8 km transmission line to connect the plant to the state’s electricity grid, from which energy will be supplied to Manta and the rest of the province.
Although the plant will be built largely on land intended for Refinería del Pacífico, the project documents suggest that the use of natural areas and secondary forests is also contemplated. The situation is starting to worry neighbors and specialists, who don’t want the mistakes of the past to be repeated.
The construction of the refinery had a marked impact on the lives of the inhabitants of El Aromo and other areas. According to studies, deforestation, which can be easily observed in satellite photos, has modified the region’s microclimate, reducing the fog that hovered over the region in the afternoons and the rains.
Carrión insists that the current project is better managed. A complete project plan, including a sustainability report, is submitted to the Ministry of Finance for review and approval, as required by law, prior to contract signing. Carrión anticipates that this will happen in the coming weeks.
However, experts call for a more in-depth analysis of the possible impacts of new works. Gaspar Moreno, an agronomist from Manta who has been doing research on protected natural areas and ecosystem services in the province, says he has done an analysis that shows that temperature measurements have increased over 20 years in the area of the abandoned refinery.
Proximity to protected areas
“We have to be very attentive to what is done here, as the area is next to protected areas and there will certainly be an impact“, it says. “Changing temperatures affect hydrological systems, causing desiccation of rivers”.
The area is home to ocelots (medium-sized spotted lynxes), white-faced deer, armadillos and peccaries (mammals with hooves similar to pigs), adds Moreno, but “the work carried out in this place has taken them to new limits”
Natalia Greene, vice-president of the Ecuadorian Coordination of Organizations for the Defense of Nature and the Environment ( Cedenma ), also expressed concern about the impact of the new infrastructure: “To build a transmission line, they have to come in with trucks, they have to open roads. So they are affecting virgin areas and this has an environmental impact. It can be said that eight kilometers is not much, but it affects the entire ecosystem that is removed to place the towers.“.
“We have to take into account that there are species that migrate or have their biological corridors to feed, reproduce, etc. When you disturb them, what you do is cut these biological corridors, preventing species from migrating or adapting.”. She suggests that infrastructure be built in areas that are already deforested, where vegetation is not affected.
El Aromo is part of Ecuador’s larger plan. It is the first step in a campaign started in 2019 to attract foreign capital interested in financing renewable energy projects.
Records show that companies from Canada, France, Korea and China have submitted bids for the El Aromo contract. Four Chinese companies were particularly interested: Harbin Electric International, Power China, Harbin Engineering Company and China Huadian.
In 2021, the Ecuadorian government opened a major bidding process for renewable energy projects totaling 500 megawatts. Companies were free to propose projects based on their own assessment of the country’s energy potential.
Chinese state-owned Huadian and other Chinese companies are expected to submit bids. At the event, however, only companies from France, Spain, Mexico and Ecuador presented proposals for the development of 10 projects.
still no answers
The announcement of the selected companies was scheduled for the first week of February, but so far the winners have not been announced.
Deputy Minister Carrión confirmed that 37 companies participated in the process. He is excited about the expansion of renewable energy in the country: “We opened an order for 500 megawatts, but these 10 projects add up to 680 megawatts”.
Juan Peralta, a professor at the School of Mechanical Engineering and Production Sciences at the Escuela Politécnica Superior del Litoral (ESPOL) and a specialist in renewable energies, says that the country should seek to develop a mix of technologies: “Sustainable energy should be promoted, not just solar energy, but a variety of systems”. In short, he says, it’s about not putting all your eggs in one basket.
Ecuador has opened its doors to renewable energies. After the failed Pacific Refinery dream, today the prospects are bright.