Long-delayed Colombian hydro project nearing initial commercial operations
By Jaime Ortega Carrascal
Ituango, Colombia, Oct 20 (EFE).- Thousands of workers are toiling around the clock in an underground cavern to launch initial operations at what will be Colombia’s largest hydroelectric project – a massive embankment dam on the Cauca River.
Once its eight turbines are operating, the dam located amid mountainsides and known as Hidroituango will have an installed generating capacity of 2.4 GW, “equivalent to 17 percent of the country’s energy demand,” said engineer William Giraldo, vice president of energy generation projects at Empresas Publicas de Medellin, the utility that owns the dam.
Construction began in 2010 in the so-called “Cauca Canyon” and was to have been concluded in 2018.
But the landslide-triggered blockage of the sole operating river diversion tunnel on April 28 of that year triggered a dangerous rise in the water level of the reservoir.
That incident forced engineers to flood the nearly completed machine room (the underground cavern where the turbines will operate) at the foot of the dam, a step taken to prevent water from destroying the then-under-construction dam, which has since been completed and stands 225 meters (737 feet) tall.
“The project is now a bit further along compared to what we had in 2018. In April 2018, we had it to a point where it was six or seven months away from entering into service. And now we’re two months away,” Giraldo said.
Engineers are confident the first two of the hydroelectric plant’s eight turbines will enter into operation on Nov. 30 near Ituango, a town in the northwestern Colombian department of Antioquia.
“We’re pushing ourselves to get it into service before Nov. 30,” Giraldo said.
Two other turbines are expected to be ready in the fourth quarter of 2023, three more in 2025 and the last in December 2026.
But the project’s engineers also are exercising great caution.
In addition to checking the status of the machine room’s electromechanical equipment, they will be monitoring how the mountain responds to vibrations produced by the turbines once the water starts to flow through the dam.
“In the powerhouse, we had $110 million in installed equipment, and all of that equipment was lost” when it was deliberately flooded, Giraldo recalled while showing Efe the immense underground cavern where an army of 6,500 laborers are working 24 hours a day in three shifts.
That emergency caused the project’s total cost, which had been 11.4 trillion pesos ($2.36 billion at the current exchange rate), to climb to $18.3 trillion pesos.
The project has come under fire from NGOs like the Living Rivers Movement, which recalled that Hidroituango’s environmental impact assessment states that its negative impacts (24) far outweigh the positive (three) and that thousands of inhabitants of towns downstream from the dam are already being affected by the artificial management of the river course.
Even so, the project’s environmental, social and sustainability director, Robinson Miranda, says EPM is acting in a manner that is environmentally and socially responsible and protects human rights, adding that 2.5 trillion pesos have been invested in Hidroituango’s environmental and social management plan.
Due to the project’s setbacks, the start date for commercial operations of the first turbines has already been postponed three times this year.
For his part, Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero, who has been locked in a dispute with EPM over the company’s management, has clarified that “Hidroituango will only start operating when every last test tells us everything is order for both the project and the people” in the vicinity of the dam. EFE