Engineers had tried to generate the project’s full 1500 megawatts, but neither the facility nor Ecuador’s electrical grid could handle it. The equipment shuddered dangerously, and blackouts spread across the country, officials said.
Ecuadoreans were never told about the failure, and a full power test has not been attempted since.
Today, the dam typically runs at half capacity. Experts say that given its design — and the cycle of wet and dry seasons in Ecuador — it would be able to generate the full amount of electricity for only a few hours a day, six months out of the year.
That is, if everything worked perfectly.
Ecuador still has to pay back the debt, though. The $1.7 billion loan from China’s Export-Import Bank is lucrative for China: 7 percent interest over 15 years. In interest alone, Ecuador owes $125 million a year.
Now, many Ecuadoreans say the burden falls on them.
Under the constant hum of the dam’s transmission towers, residents in the town of Cuyuja worry that the towers will topple in the constant mudslides. Geologists say the tower foundations weren’t built into bedrock by the Chinese.
Another complaint is the bill. Maria Esther Tello paid $60 last month to keep the lights on in her home, a shock given the government’s promises electricity prices would go down.
“Where have my old mother’s taxes gone?” asked her daughter, Isbela Nole, as she helped harvest and peel fava beans to pay the government.
Evidence of possible bribery
At an entrance to the dam is an inscription, in marble.
“Jorge Glas Espinel, vice president of the republic,” it says. “For having forged and envisioned this monumental project.”