With a price tag of between thirty-five and forty million U.S. dollars, the Chalillo hydroelectric project is perhaps the largest private undertaking in Belize's history. Today that facility was officially commissioned in a ceremony at the site, which straddles the Macal River and connects the Mountain Pine Ridge and Chiquibul Forest Reserves. And while the completion of Chalillo may ultimately be viewed as a triumph of foresight and common sense, today's good cheer was tempered by the reality that despite hydropower, oil remains the major ingredient in Belize's energy mix... and that spells trouble for consumers. News Five's Stewart Krohn reports.
Stewart Krohn, Reporting
It all seems so easy today, but in May of 2003 when ground was broken on the Chalillo hydroelectric project, not everyone could envision the completion of a one hundred and fifty foot high dam holding back a newly created lake full of water. The controversy surrounding the endeavour produced the most bitter environmental debate in the nation's history and delayed the production of electricity from this plant almost two years. But for Stan Marshall, C.E.O. of Fortis, B.E.L.’s majority owner, the focus was on the future.
Stan Marshall, C.E.O., Fortis
”The official commissioning of the Chalillo project represents a quantum leap on the road to energy self-reliance. With the Chalillo reservoir already over fifty percent full, the country could sustain itself for an extended period if the connection to Mexico were disrupted. The Chalillo dam now makes it possible for Belize to meet its full energy demand, at least for the short term, using generation available in country at least to the level of sixty-three megawatts.”
With demand for energy increasing over seven percent each year, the doubling of Belize's hydro generation from eighty to one hundred and sixty gigawatt hours per year will not begin to fully solve the nation's energy problems...but it will help, particularly since the creation of this reservoir will allow the electric utility to release water during hours of peak demand when the price of buying power from Mexico is at its highest. In the middle of the night, when Mexican power is only pennies per kilowatt hour, the turbines at Chalillo and downstream at Mollejon can rest while river water builds up behind the dam.
And while the basic science and economics seem pretty elementary, in today's climate of seventy dollars per barrel oil, the project's logic underwent some heavy challenges from environmental activists both local and foreign who took to the streets and the courts in support of their ultimately unsuccessful cause.
For utilities minister Ralph Fonseca, Chalillo's prime proponent in government, that opposition to the dam came with a heavy cost for the nation.
Ralph Fonseca, Min. of Public Utilities
”What I hope is as I’ve said in my speech that they’ve learnt something from this. They are now having the people of Belize suffer greatly because of this single agenda that they had, which as I said, we believe was externally funded, had nothing to do with the well-being of Belize. We hope that they have learnt a lesson and that if they go through some sort further protest action that they can live with their conscience.”
But if Minister Fonseca thought that costs of delaying the Chalillo project were heavy, Belize Electricity Limited C.E.O. Lynn Young went one step further and dropped a bombshell that not even the joy of Chalillo could defuse.
Lynn Young, C.E.O., Belize Electricity Limited
”What has been happening with oil prices has just been killing our company and for the last year or so we have had to borrow from Fortis and just about anybody who’d lend us money to meet our monthly bills. So my regret is that this didn’t happen two years ago because as I stand here now we are talking about asking the government for another rate increase.”
Did he say, "Another rate increase"?
”We’ve been looking at it from every angle and as the oil prices rose to seventy-five dollars a barrel, Mexican rates also increased significantly. We’ve also gotten notice from them that we’ll have like a sixty percent increase in rates from Mexico next year. I’ve always said that Chalillo might not lower rates but it will help to keep things in check. But if oil prices go through the roof all bets are off... and that’s what is happening.”
Young's wish will not become reality without approval from the Public Utilities Commission... and that fight will be long and tough. But for now, with every turn of the turbines at Chalillo and Mollejon, the cost of our electricity will be that much cheaper than it would have been relying on petroleum. And for that small blessing at least our children, grandchildren, and their children may yet owe Chalillo a word of thanks. Stewart Krohn for News Five.
Adding a welcome note of levity to today's ceremony was the presence of former Prime Minister George Price, who after being forced to endure his least favourite version of the national anthem, regaled the audience with the origins of the names of our two hydroelectric facilities. Both locations on the Macal River, he explained, were former camps used by the men who collected and processed chicle. Chalillo is the Spanish word for shawl, while Mollejon means grindstone. The exact reasons for giving those particular names to the camps, however, have died with the old chicleros.
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