Letters From Exile

...Scott Bidstrup's Life And Living In Costa Rica

Tue, May 08 2007

Got Power, Got Phone, Got Garbage

Well, as they say, it never rains but what it pours.

After recovering from a disastrous Monday of about three weeks ago, when my phone went out and power rationing started, the phone guy finally came and got my phone repaired (sort of) and got me back on line. And after two weeks of power rationing, ICE, the power company, has announced that the power rationing has ended - at least for now. So I can sit down to the computer and commence a project without too much fear of it being interrupted by a power cut. So far, so good.

After three weeks, we're still getting mixed messages about the reason for the power cuts. Conspiracy theories abound, fueled by the fact that they began, suspiciously enough, exactly one week after the Elections Tribunal had announced that they had accepted the President's proposal for a national referendum on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (known here by the acronym, TLC, which stands for Trato Libre Commercial, or Free Trade Treaty. In fact, the head of the ICE employees union, who is leading the effort against the treaty, accused the government of instituting the cuts in order to discredit ICE as a publicly-owned institution, and force its sale to private interests, as has happened long ago in Panama and Nicaragua.

Another theory, popular among the expats, is that one of the foreign corporations interested in buying ICE (and there are known to be several) under the terms of the treaty, may have bribed someone to instigate the cuts for that same reason. The most popular targets of the theoretical bribe would be President Arias, or the president of ICE, or the head of the distribution department at ICE. The fact is that other than the circumstance of the cuts beginning right after the referendum was announced, there is no real evidence for such a theory.

The conspiracy theories were fueled by a report appearing in the paper that ICE had been letting water out of the Cachi Reservoir (ICE's second-largest hydro site) in the middle of the night. The paper quoted a man whose home and business are on the banks of the river downstream from the dam, who said that when there is water in that river, it wakes him up from the noise it makes, and he had been woken up the night before the newspaper article appeared, when water was being released from the reservoir - or so he said.

ICE, of course, denied this, but the speculation has not exactly been dampened by the fact that they have told at least six different, conflicting stories about the cause of the cuts, and when they would likely end. The official story they seem to have settled on at the moment is the drought - rainfall in the hydroelectric project drainages is down about 30% from last year, and the drought is not over, even though the rains have begun. But we're still hearing about turbine failures at two of three oil-fired plants with turbine failures, one in Moin, near Puerto Limon, another near San Jose, and a third near Puntarenas.

But the cuts have mercifully ended - last weekend, when President Arias inaugurated two new hydroelectric projects, one generating 87 megawatts, and the other 17, adding a total of 5% of new generating capacity to the national grid's current 2176 megawatts of power generating capacity. The two new plants represent the first new capacity of any significance since I have been in the country. And the national load has increased by 15% since I have been here. Clearly, one of the most critical issues facing the country is underinvestment in generating capacity - the numbers being bandied about are about $300 million being needed to just to get back on top of the situation, and about $120 million a year to stay on top of it. That is a huge chunk of change for a nation of just 4 million people. Given that expense, one would think that ICE would have a more open attitude about co-generation, but several of the large co-generation contracts with private power producers have apparently been allowed to lapse without being renewed, and several proposed new ones have not been successfully concluded.

One thing that could be done immediately to alleviate the shortage would be to have a replacement drive to replace the nation's incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent lamps - that alone would eliminate the need for several new plants. And since Costa Rica is the Saudi Arabia of geothermal reserves, having more kilowatt-hours of reserve per capita than any nation but Iceland, it would seem to me that the logical thing to do would be to begin developing these reserves. Geothermal only amounts to about 6% of current capacity, and ICE says they want to raise that to 17%, but there is no reason why it couldn't be brought to generate much more - most of the country's needs, in fact. And it wouldn't require a single barrel of oil be imported to generate the electricity, nor would it be subject to the vagaries of the weather. Indeed, Costa Rica could generate power to sell to its neighbors who are also chronically short of generating capacity. What is needed is the vision - and the financing - to bring this about. Yes, the initial cost is greater, but this pays the country back over the long term, by avoiding the use of scarce foreign exchange to buy oil to keep the lights lit.

There are many other things that Costa Rica could be doing, too, such as recycling plastics to make imported asphalt stretch much further, thereby reducing the foreign-exchange cost of new road construction. All this, of course, requires vision of the sort that seems to be sadly lacking in this conservative right-wing administration. And as the Bible says, where there is no vision, the people perish.

As if to try my patience, the country reminded me once again that I live in a third-world nation when a week ago last Monday, the garbage truck failed to show to remove my garbage. Not a big deal - I simply put it back in the pila (washroom) to wait for the usual pickup on Thursday. I set it out again on Thursday morning, and waited for the garbage truck to come, but once again it failed to show. By noon, I had given up and taken the garbage back in. I called one of my friends in town to find out what she knew, and she indicated that there had been a pickup on Wednesday, but she didn't know what the deal was, or whether that was going to be a permanent change or not. I began to wonder if they had changed to once-per-week pickup, on Wednesdays, and no one had put up a notice in town.

Well, later on that day, a neighbor who happens to be on the community improvement association board happened by in front of my house, so I stopped him and asked what he knew. He said that they had had several trucks break down at once, and that normal pickups would resume on Monday. So I put out my garbage early on Monday, and waited. The very latest they ever come by is 9 AM, and I grew concerned when they hadn't picked up the garbage by 11. I had visions of putting two week's worth of garbage back in the pila and waiting yet again, and maybe going to town to inquire if I had not learned something I needed to know - like a change in pickup day. But finally, at 11:30, they showed - with a truck totally brim full of garbage. They collected mine and went on their way.

So I am rid of my garbage. For now. I hope that collection will continue as per normal, and all it was, was just one of the frequent truck breakdowns. We'll see.

One of my ham friends, who has connections at the Radio Control Office, got my ham license renewed for me without my having to make a two-day trip to San Jose to do it myself. That was certainly good news, and I have been having a lot of fun getting back on the air lately. I have been doing some antenna design for this same friend, using some simulation software I happen to have. We have been planning a really killer station for him - he will be a big signal on the bands once it is all done. I have some antennas planned for my station too, once I am settled somewhere and can spend some time and effort building it, using the tower I have just acquired. I need to find some fiberglass fenceposts of the kind used for electric fences, which I can use as "spreaders" for holding some antenna wires. This will mean a trip to San Carlos (the market town in the richest agriculture region of the country) in the near future, to look around town for a ferreteria that sells them. With them, I could build a really rugged antenna that would last for many years without maintenance. I have seen them in the States, but not here - but I am told that they are, in fact, available. Failing that, I will have to look for other possibilities, such as trying to find a source for Schedule 80 ABS plastic pipe. That would do it too, but I have never seen ABS in this country, and am doubtful if I did find it, that I would find it available in Schedule 80.

The weather has been warm, really warm for this time of year, with highs running to about 82 on cloudy days and 85 or 86 on sunny ones. Nights have been warm, too, never dropping out of the 70's all night long - no one can recall it ever being this warm this time of year. Normally, the rainy season should have begun, but you'd be hard pressed to tell from how dry the Arenal area is. Both of these parameters are consistent with global warming predictions, so no one is surprised. We have been seeing a lot of rain clouds, but they haven't been producing much rain, and the reservoir is about as low as most folks around here say they have seen it, though a few folks are insisting it has been much lower. But ICE has said that the lake's low level has been one of the reasons for the emergency power rationing. Just one more ICE story that doesn't add up.

|| Scott Bidstrup, Nuevo Arenal, Costa Rica 09:47:44 AM
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