In Ecuador, a recent series of electricity service cuts since October 27, 2023, stemming from a decline in national energy reserves, has underscored the need to comprehend the fundamental processes involved in electricity generation. While Ecuador utilizes a diverse range of energy sources, its over reliance on hydroelectric power— contributing to 92% of the country’s energy mix— has exposed a problem that may only get worse in the future.
The backbone of Ecuador’s electricity generation lies in its 71 hydroelectric plants, harnessing the power of water to generate energy. Norman Jiménez, an electrical engineer, explained that hydroelectric plants leverage the physics principle of potential energy. Water falling from a great height turns turbines, activating generators that convert this kinetic energy into electricity.
Three types of hydroelectric plants exist: run-of-the-river plants, reservoir plants, and storage plants. Each utilizes the force of flowing water differently, ranging from allowing the river’s natural current to pass through turbines to strategically storing water in reservoirs for controlled energy release.
Run-of-the-river plants enable the river or stream’s current to pass through a turbine, returning to the natural flow downstream of the plant. Reservoir plants accumulate water from one or several rivers in a reservoir, either natural or artificial (dam), releasing it downstream to turn turbines, generate electricity, and return to the river. Storage plants, featuring two reservoirs at different heights, use the second as a power reserve. After water falls downstream, generating electricity, it can be pumped back upstream during periods of lower energy demand, utilizing the turbines as an electric pumping system.
The electricity generated in large hydroelectric plants undergoes a transformation process. Initially, the voltage produced goes to substations equipped with transformers that convert alternating current into direct current before being distributed through transmission lines across the country.
Diverse Energy Portfolio
While hydroelectric power dominates (92%), Ecuador also taps into other renewable energy sources to diversify its energy portfolio.
Thermal energy (i.e., utilizing fossil fuels), once a mainstay of Ecuador’s energy resources has been slowly phased out since 2014. Once providing the majority of the country’s source of electricity, it now accounts for only about 7%.
Solar energy, with 34 photovoltaic plants, harnesses the sun’s abundant radiation. Researchers highlight the considerable solar potential in Ecuador, especially in the Coastal and Sierra regions. Solar panels convert photons from sunlight into electricity, with generated direct current eventually transformed into alternating current for distribution.
Wind power, facilitated by three wind energy plants, captures air currents in coastal and mountainous areas. Wind turbines, comprising tall towers and rotating propellers, convert kinetic energy into electricity. Biomass and biogas energy, derived from organic matter in agriculture, livestock, and urban waste, further contribute to Ecuador’s energy mix. Biomass energy is obtained through combustion, while biogas energy results from the biodegradation of organic matter in urban solid waste.
It is important to note that solar, wind, biomass and biogas energy still only accounts for 1% of Ecuador’s energy supply.
In Ecuador, solar energy has gained prominence with 34 solar or photovoltaic energy plants spread across the country. The primary source of solar energy is the sun, which emits electromagnetic radiation in the form of light, heat, and ultraviolet rays. Jorge Patricio Muñoz-Vizhñay, Marco Vinicio Rojas-Moncayo, and Carlos Raúl Barreto-Calle from the National University of Loja note that solar radiation in Ecuador is substantial, particularly in the Coastal and Sierra regions, with an average daily global solar radiation value of 4,575 watts per square meter.
Norman Jiménez explains that solar energy generation occurs through the interaction of photons, which are light particles essential to the electromagnetic process, with a silicon plate in solar panels. This interaction generates small voltages initially. Solar panels are interconnected in series and parallel configurations to produce electricity. The initially generated direct current is then converted into alternating current, which is subsequently transported through cables to nearby substations. Here, the voltage is adjusted and connected to the electrical grid for distribution and consumption.
Ecuador harnesses wind power in regions with significant air currents, such as coastal and mountainous areas. With three wind energy plants located in Loja and on the San Cristóbal and Baltra islands of the Galapagos archipelago, wind turbines play a crucial role in the country’s energy mix. Engineer Jiménez describes the wind turbine’s structure, consisting of a tall tower and a propeller or rotor. The propellers move with the action of the wind, transmitting this movement to a generator, which converts the mechanical energy into electrical energy.
The electricity initially generated as alternating current undergoes a transformation process. Through a rectification system, it is converted into direct current and then transformed back into alternating current using an inverter. The electricity is transported through underground or aerial cables to nearby substations, where the voltage is adjusted before being connected to the electrical grid for distribution.
Ecuador utilizes biomass energy derived from organic materials produced in agriculture and livestock activities. Organic matter, when accumulated, generates methane gas, which can be channeled into boilers or steam generators to produce electrical energy. According to the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (Espol), the main sources of biomass in Ecuador include bananas, rice, cocoa, sugar cane, corn, African palm, pineapple, coffee, palm hearts, plantains, and waste from poultry, swine, and vaccines.
With three biomass energy plants in the country, Ecuador effectively converts organic waste into a valuable energy resource, contributing to a sustainable and diversified energy portfolio.
Biogas energy in Ecuador is produced through the biodegradation—decomposition—of organic matter present in urban solid waste, such as household garbage. The Metropolitan Public Company for Comprehensive Solid Waste Management (Emgirs) manages an Electric Power Generation Plant from Biogas in collaboration with GasGreen SA, under an agreement with the Municipality of Quito. Emgirs and GasGreen are responsible for extracting organic matter from Quito’s landfill using pipes, directing it to motor generators. These machines, driven by an internal combustion engine, move an electric generator to produce electricity.
Ecuador boasts two biogas energy plants, emphasizing the country’s commitment to leveraging unconventional sources of energy and addressing waste management challenges simultaneously.
Energy Transmission and Distribution
Once generated, electricity undergoes a series of transformations and travels through transmission lines. Engineer Jiménez emphasizes the role of substations in adjusting voltage levels, ensuring compatibility with distribution networks. These networks, equipped with transformers, deliver electricity to homes and industries at standardized voltage levels, typically 220 or 120 volts.
Ecuador’s approach to electricity generation reflects a commitment to sustainability and a diverse energy mix. However, hydroelectric power still takes center stage, and while the integration of solar, wind, biomass, and biogas energy sources contribute to a resilient and reliable national electrical system, they remain underutilized or under implemented.