STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Nicaragua produces no oil, but it does have fierce winds, tropical sun and volcanoes, all of which could make it a renewable energy paradise. The Central American nation is moving quickly to become a green-energy powerhouse. Within a few years, we're told, the vast majority of Nicaragua's electricity will come from hydroelectric dams, geothermal plants and wind farms. Here's reporter John Otis.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: What you're hearing is the wind coming off the giant Lake Nicaragua that stretches halfway across the country, but it's not just any old breeze.
JAVIER PENTZKE: Well, this region here is one of the top places in the world mainly because you have all the opening here from the lake all the way to the Caribbean, so it's like a tunnel. And it's very steady; it's not too gusty.
OTIS: Javier Pentzke manages Nicaragua's largest wind farm. He says the wind here is perfect for rotating the three-bladed props on the dozens of wind turbines that rise up from the western shore of the lake.
PENTZKE: And it's really exciting - the fact that, you know, those blades are rotating and they're producing energy, and we're not burning any fossil fuel.
OTIS: Just a few years ago, Nicaragua was almost totally dependent on imported fuel oil to generate power. The country also lacked thermal plants to turn that fuel oil into electricity. The result was rolling blackouts that damaged the economy and made daily life a grind.
SILVERIO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Silverio Martinez runs a general store in the farm town of San Jacinto. He tells me that when the power went out, the town's water pumps were paralyzed, so there was no water. The local mill couldn't grind corn, so his wife couldn't make tortillas. Carpenters, he recalls, sat idle because their power tools were useless. But just a few miles from Martinez's store lies Telica, one of 19 volcanoes in Nicaragua.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)
OTIS: That's the sound of scorching water, bubbling up to the surface near Telica, signaling vast stores of underground heat. Nicaragua also features roaring rivers and sweltering sun. To harness all this natural energy, the government in 2005 passed a law providing tax breaks to companies investing in renewables. Gabriel Sanchez works for the business promotion agency PRONicaragua.
GABRIEL SANCHEZ: The decision was made that we had to begin shifting towards renewable energy. A set of policies were put in place that would allow renewable energy projects to be developed in Nicaragua.
OTIS: Energy companies also like Nicaragua's current stability after decades of revolution, civil war and economic chaos. One of them, Nevada-based Ram Power, has sunk more than $400 million into the Polaris geothermal plant located next to Telica volcano. Antonio Duarte is the plant manager.
ANTONIO DUARTE: We try to locate where a hot rock resource is, which is usually about 5 to 7 kilometers below the Earth's crust.
OTIS: This molten rock heats underground water, which is then brought to the surface. The resulting steam is fed into turbines to produce electricity. Besides reducing carbon emissions, Duarte says geothermal power has made Nicaragua less dependent on foreign oil.
DUARTE: The petroleum bill on an annual basis is a significant amount of our GDP. So by changing the energy matrix, we're generating power from our own resources and not being held ransom on the fluctuations of the market.
OTIS: Renewables now generate nearly half of Nicaragua's electricity, a figure that government officials predict could rise to 80 percent within a few years. That compares to just 13 percent in the United States. And it may be just the beginning. There's so much untapped energy here that Nicaragua, once a nation of 12-hour blackouts, is planning to export electricity to its Central American neighbors. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, San Jacinto, Nicaragua.
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