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Hidroituango is almost ready, but is it the path to the energy transition?

The largest hydroelectric plant in Colombia was expected to come online at the end of 2018. However, that same year one of the river diversion tunnels was blocked due to a landslide, which prevented the start of its operation. Since then, Hidroituango has been at the focus of the national debate.

Now, there is a race against time, since the final term to start the operation of turbines 1 and 2, according to the Energy and Gas Regulation Commission (Creg), is November 30 of this year, or otherwise a penalty amounting to 3 billion pesos must be paid.

As reported to Impacto ECO by Santiago Ortega, director of Innovation in emergencies of the company Emergente Energía Sostenible, "Right now, the manager of Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) is very concerned because he will have to pay a guarantee if the hydroelectric plant does not come on line before November 30."

This event would imply that the projects that are already underway or that are planned for Medellín, would have a delay.

On different occasions Daniel Quintero, mayor of Medellín, the manager of Public Companies of Medellin (EPM) and Irene Vélez, Minister of Mines and Energy, assured that the established dates will be met, there have been positive signs, but it is something that so far remains uncertain.

In the last hours the synchronization of the second Hidroituango turbine was achieved, which means that the chances of meeting the goal of achieving full operation increase, with a few hours to go before the deadline.

Why is Hidroituango so important?

This milestone is of great importance because Hidroituango is the largest dam in the country. Santiago Ortega, who is a civil engineer with a master's degree in Hydraulic Resources Engineering, Renewable Energies and Physical Oceanography, gives 3 key facts about Hidroituango:

"It is the largest hydroelectric plant in all of Colombia, it will provide 17% of the energy for the entire country and it has 11 turbines in total.”   

In addition, Ortega points out that If the start of its operation is not carried out, the energy crisis would not be only for that region, but for the entire country:

“If it is not opened, we could talk about an energy crisis in all of Colombia. We are seeing that the demand for energy has been growing month after month, but the supply of energy has not. We have an energy supply deficit, because it is not just Ituango, there are more transmission lines that are behind."  

The panorama is encouraging in terms of the operation of this hydroelectric plant, although the environmental and social impacts that its construction generated and that its operation entails should not be left aside. However, Santiago Ortega makes it clear that the company has already paid for these impacts: “All the environmental and social impacts of the project are already being paid for, now pressure is needed to start having the benefits. Until Ituango is fully operational, the downstream risk will not be mitigated.”

Are hydroelectric plants part of the energy transition?

The construction of a mega-project, and even more so if it is part of the energy field, will always generate concerns about its effects on water and environmental ecosystems. These have been expressed from before the start of construction and up to the last day, as shown by the statements of the Minister of Environment Susana Muhamadsuch as the stability of the rock mass and water leaks in the tunnel.

However, beyond these valid concerns, the debate as to whether a country like Colombia should invest and bet on hydroelectric power generation seems to have been overcome. It is important to understand that this type of energy generation is part of the energy transition. “Hydroelectric plants are energy sources that do not have associated CO2. Large dams do have to do with some emissions, but in general hydroelectric plants are a renewable source, a clean source of energy,” explains Ortega.

The expert adds that “Colombia, by 2050 in all the scenarios we look at, will be a country that will draw at least half of its energy from the large reservoirs it has today. So it's critical to be able to have the reservoirs and other renewables to take fossil fuels out of the equation."

Beyond the political debate that has been generated around the project, compliance with the deadline and environmental issues that are a priority but that can and should work permanently, the most important thing at the start of the operation will be safety. "The most important thing is that Hidroituango starts operating safely as soon as possible," Ortega concludes.

Hidroituango Context

The Ituango Hydroelectric Project is one of the most important projects of its kind in Colombia. It is located on the Cauca River, between the corregimiento of Puerto Valdivia and the municipality of Ituango, in Antioquia. Its construction and the execution of the work began in 2010, by Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM).

Main photo: Alejandro Mesa Malagon.

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Daniela Jaramillo Castillo
Daniela Jaramillo Castillo
I am an ecologist from the Javeriana University, with experience in environmental education. She is co-founder of EcoChuspa, an environmental education and outreach project through social networks. Also, I am a lover of entomology. In Impacto TIC I coordinate Impacto ECO, the media's sustainability and environment project.