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Where El Salvador Looks for Electric Power

ONE barrier to an era of electrically powered prosperity in rural El Salvador may be finding new sources of electricity.

When a recent flight into El Salvador passed over one of the country's hydroelectric dams on the Rio Lempa, a Salvadoran passenger proudly announced to his seatmate that other Central American nations rely upon Salvadoran hydropower.

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The truth is, El Salvador doesn't always generate enough electricity to meet its own needs. Its neighbors are in the same dilemma. The bulk of the mountainous, reasonably well-watered region's electricity is produced at hydropower dams. But recent hydropower surpluses in Honduras and Guatemala, depended on by countries like El Salvador and Costa Rica, have evaporated. Though there are plans to build more inter-country transmission lines in Central America, including a first-ever line linking Honduras and

El Salvador, finding power to send over those lines is another issue. (In Guatemala, there is talk about building an oil- or gas-fired plant and floating it on a barge off the country's Caribbean coast.)

El Salvador experienced power outages last year that were not the result of dynamited power lines and substations. A prominent Salvadoran businessman recently suggested to George Biddle of the Institute for Central American Studies that one of the biggest issues facing the country is "satisfying legitimate environmental concerns while meeting the absolute need to generate more electricity."

Drought and silting from soil erosion has reduced the output at the Rio Lempa dams. Over the long term, hydropower could be increased by rehabilitating watersheds - reducing deforestation and cultivation on steep slopes. The country also has plans to build more hydropower dams on the Lempa, including a massive project called El Tigre, which will flood land in both El Salvador and Honduras.

Geothermal power, suggested by El Salvador's volcanic-spiked landscape, could play a significant role. There are two producing sites, with three additional geothermal plants generating more than 100 megawatts due on-line by 1998.

The potential of solar power, small hydropower, and wind-generation is largely unexplored; to the degree that these renewables can be developed, they may be ideal for remote rural sites. More power could be generated by building oil- or gas-fired plants (four such plants are now in operation). But besides the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels, the price of such imported fuels could be prohibitive for debt-strapped El Salvador.

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