China Builds Hydroelectric Plant with Cracks in Ecuador

The Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project is under examination to determine the danger more than 7,600 cracks might pose.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 15 February 2019

Transnational Threats

The Coca Codo Sinclair plant, funded by the Chinese company Sinohydro, has 7,600 cracks in the eight distributors that inject water into turbines, because of the poor building materials and inferior welds used. (Photo: Electric Corporation of Ecuador)

Chinese state company Sinohydro funded the Coca Codo Sinclair (CCS) Hydroelectric Power Plant in Ecuador, which was inaugurated in November 2016. An inspection of the structure in November 2018 discovered 7,600 cracks in the eight distributors that inject water into turbines. The cracks are due to the use of substandard building materials and inferior welds. The Ecuadorean government appointed German company TÜV SÜD to conduct a yearlong thorough evaluation of the plant.

“This shows the poor quality of construction in Chinese infrastructure megaprojects, six of which are hydroelectric plants,” former Ecuadorean Minister of Energy Fernando Santos told Diálogo. “If the cracks can’t be repaired, the machine chamber will have to be replaced. What starts badly ends badly.”

TÜV SÜD will evaluate the structural failures and propose solutions to repair the distributors of Ecuador’s largest engineering work. The state’s Comptroller General reported the cracks, with depths ranging from 2 millimeters to 38 centimeters, in a report issued on November 14, 2018.

The report indicated that the plant’s first cracks were detected in 2014, for failure to follow appropriate procedures in the making, transport, and assembly of components. The Chinese company attempted to repair the cracks in 2015 and 2018, weakening the welding and distributor materials.

In addition, sand damaged two turbines’ rollers. “The Chinese construction company rejected the repair request the Electric Corporation of Ecuador [CELEC, in Spanish] issued. China must answer for the work,” Santos said.

CCS is a federal power generation project that uses the confluence of the Quijos and Salado rivers, which forms the Coca River, between Napo and Sucumbíos provinces. With an operating capacity of 1,500 megawatts, the dam is projected to produce about 8,734 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, almost 30 percent of the country’s demand, CELEC told the press. The Chinese government funded 85 percent of the dam’s $2.85 billion cost through the Export-Import Bank of China.

“China owns us”

Chinese banks funded six of the eight hydroelectric projects to change the energy matrix in Ecuador, allowing it to increase its presence in the country in the last 10 years. Chinese companies also developed other infrastructure projects, such as the office building for the Government Financial Management Platform, which flooded on its first day in operation, on May 15, 2017, due to an accumulation of construction debris in the drains. They also built 11 schools under the Millennium Educational Units project in several Ecuadorean provinces. “Weather, social, and cultural aspects in the area of influence were not considered to design these schools,” said Santos.

The Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant has structural failures and risks being wiped away by an earthquake. (Photo: Electric Corporation of Ecuador)

“China has distinct interests. Its strategic vision is long term to gain trust and more money. China is not a benefactor country,” Milton Reyes, researcher at the National Institute of Higher Studies of Ecuador, told Diálogo. “The funding might be key to Chinese political interests to form strategic alliances to counter the world order.”

China became the main source of Ecuador’s funding in different megaprojects in the Amazon focused on hydropower and mining. “There are loans that the government struggles to pay. China essentially owns us,” Santos said. “Our partnership with China involved high interest rates, advanced oil sales until 2024, and a dubious model of infrastructure investment.”

Ruthless inspectors

The Ecuadorean government has yet to approve of the hydroelectric plant. Another issue the plant faces is the risk of being wiped out by an earthquake. “This project is located very close to the country’s most active continental fault, a place that isn’t suitable for this type of project because of the high exposure to seismic activity,” Hugo Yepes, geologist and researcher at the National Polytechnic School (EPN, in Spanish) in Ecuador, told Diálogo.

Yepes led the EPN’s Geophysics Institute during the planning of the hydroelectric project. He said he didn’t receive any request for information, not even for basic information to carry out a seismic-resistant design. “[Chinese companies] used studies from past decades in many of these hydroelectric projects,” he said.

In 1987, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake, with its epicenter in the Reventador Volcano, caused a series of massive landslides that affected the oil infrastructure in the area. “Earthquakes are ruthless testers of civil engineering works,” said Yepes.

Another risk for CCS is its proximity (30 kilometers) to the Reventador Volcano’s active eruptive center. “One of the potential impacts on the work is that an ash flow from the volcano’s activity could affect the turbines,” Juan Carlos Singaucho, an engineer specializing in seismic engineering at EPN, told Diálogo.

“The Ecuadorean government will not officially approve the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant until the Chinese company applies all the repairs to guarantee its normal and sound operation for its 50-year lifespan,” said CELEC. “Even though it won’t be easy to break free from China, Ecuador started to strengthen bonds of friendship with the United States to increase economic, security, and defense cooperation,” Yepes concluded. 

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