Renewables: The Key to Building a Climate Resilient Colombia

Looking at climate change impacts in Colombia

Nadim Chaudhry
September 10, 2018
5 min read
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Climate Change Impacts

Based on the average of several climate model scenarios, most of Colombia is projected to experience a temperature increase of 2.4°C by 2070 compared to the 1971-2000 base period. The largest temperature increases are expected in the highlands, with a 1-2°C increase by 2050. Changes in precipitation patterns are projected to vary by region in Colombia with rainfall increase in the coastal areas and the Amazon. Increased heavy downpours will cause greater soil erosion, reduce soil nutrients reducing agricultural productivity. In the highland areas where the hydro resources are located, rainfall is projected to decrease.

Water shortages are likely to become more significant and will impact irrigated agriculture, human health and hydropower. The increased temperature and decreases in mountain precipitation are expected to contribute to a disappearance of snow-covered areas by as early as 2030. Additionally, a 56 percent decrease in moorland will further contribute to water shortages. Between 2002 and 2007 Colombia experienced 8 significant flood events, which affected 2.9 million people. Heavy rains in 2010 and 2011 resulted in floods that caused more than $6 billion dollars in damage to crops and infrastructure.

California – A Case Study for Colombia

According to a recent report from the Pacific Institute, the 2012-16 severe drought in California had a number of impacts upon the state. On average hydropower used to contribute about 18% of California’s electricity. In 2013 California only generated 12% of it’s instate “domestic” electricity from it’s hydropower sources and by 2015 this had dropped to only 7%! In total the drought led decline in hydro-powered electricity cost California $2.45bn importing electricity from other states and increased gas usage.

California's hydropower mix rapidly fell from 18% to 7%

The Pacific Institute has regularly analysed the consequences of California droughts, beginning with comprehensive assessments of the 1987-1992 drought, the 2007-2009 drought and this most recent prolonged dry spell. Together these dry periods add up to displaying a clear trend line of reducing California's hydropower resources over the past 2 decades, attributable to climate change, in the graph below.

Colombia’s High Risk Electricity Mix

In comparison to California, Colombia is more than 4 times more exposed to hydropower variability. The country’s current installed electric power generation capacity stands at 16,742 MW. Hydro-based capacity’s share accounts for 10,963 MW (66%), with the remainder being generated by gas (3,509 MW/9%), coal-fired power plants (1,339 MW/8%) and the rest from smaller facilities including wind and cogeneration. California suffered over 60% reduction in hydropower in the figures above.

A Colombian Case Study: ChinChina River Basin Study

In a specific 2012 study on the impact of climate change on the ChinChina River Basin Study using the IPCC projections for the period 2010-2039. The mean temperature could increase up to 1.2°C and surface runoff and thus hydropower resources could reduce by up to 13% with hydrological modelling under climate change conditions (see study note for further information). This localised 2012 case study cannot be extrapolated to cover the whole country, as it would be a serious underestimate for the likely impact.

Are the Government Diversification Plans Strong Enough?

By 2028, the Government of Colombia projects that installed capacity will reach 24,200 MW with 4GW coming from non hydro renewables (wind power 2,800 MW and solar 1,200 MW) and some 3.5 GW from other sources (cogeneration, coal, hydro and natural gas), according to the Colombian Government’s Mining and Energy Planning Unit (UPME). Critically is the continued development of further hydro projects to further maintain hydro dominant grid.

New Ituango Hydro Plant Problems

Of critical issue is the ongoing delays and problems at the construction of the 2.4-GW Ituango hydro project. The recent incidents, affecting what would be the country’s largest hydro power plant, included landslides that required flooding the new powerhouse and turbine room to avoid a partial dam collapse during an emergency earlier this year. This forced 24,000 people to temporarily relocate and the Ituango developer, Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM) to raise the cost of the project and delay the expected December 2018 launch to much later.

EPM has said it was canceling its planned acquisition of a majority stake in Gas Natural to free funds to deal with the situation at Ituango. It also has plans to raise up to US$1 billion from asset sales to meet commitments for its Ituango project. The company could also tap cash reserves of US$490 million and available credit lines totaling US$1.3 billion. announced.

“The board seeks to have at its disposal all of the funding alternatives that allow it to make timely decisions and continue with the investment, operation and debt service plans, taking into account the effects of the [Hidroituango] situation” EPM said in a securities filing.

Time to End the Hydro Addiction

Thus with rising hydro resource risks, plummeting costs of solar and wind, questions are being asked if the Government is sufficiently diversifying to non hydro resources. Given aging plant retirements (mainly oil and coal) coupled with the amount of new hydro that will come online will maintain a hydro dominant grid. In total, 125 hydropower projects are in the pre-feasibility stage according to the Energy and Mining Planning Unit (UPME), under the Ministry of Energy and Mines. If all these projects were approved they would add about 5,600 MW to existing installed mix, projects such as the $250m 120-MW Miel II hydro plant in the Caldas region. As a "run of the river" project it only requires a 7m dam which would clearly have far less impact to the local population and hydrology than Ituango but crucially would also be strongly affected by less rainfall.

We would argue given the potential risk of a Californian 50% variability to the hydropower base, then the Government should be planning to effectively cover growth in the grid with NCRE (non conventional renewable energy ie wind and solar) AND also effectively replace 50% of the 10GW hydropower base with solar and wind. The falling cost of solar power and wind power will mean this is the most cost effective route to generating electricity.

Benefits of Solar Power and Distributed Generation

The Government of Colombia should also recognise that a strong solar target coupled with other policies to help stimulate a larger sector of local solar installers and decentralised solar generation will have other positive outcomes. A large number of decentralised solar power generation sites will further protect Colombia’s grid and increase the robustness in terms of increasing floods. This will also allow greater potential to export gas to other countries and provide Colombia with further revenue.

The ANDREC Week 2030 Forecast for a Climate Resilient Colombia

We look forward to meeting you in Bogota in October at ANDREC Week and trying to make the above a reality for Colombia’s energy grid.