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Ecuador’s largest hydroelectric plant is full of cracks; investigators blame Chinese contractor

Technical investigators say that the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric generation plant, 100 kilometers east of Quito, was constructed with inferior materials and could suffer a “catastrophic collapse” as a result. Ecuador’s largest power plant, Coca Codo has been operating since 2016 at about 50 percent capacity.

Inspectors at the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant.

Also catastrophic, says Ecuador’s Comptroller General’s office, would the cost to make repairs.

According to two consulting firms that have conducted studies of the facility, there are 7,648 cracks, one measuring 38 centimeters, in the power-generation chambers of the plant. “It is difficult to predict the danger that these failures pose but they could lead to a system collapse,” says a report from Consulting Inspection Services (CIS).

According to information provided by investigators, the problem stems from the use of construction materials by Chinese contractor Sinohydro that did not meet industry standards.

According to the comptroller, the problems with cracking were not only from original construction but in attempts by Sinohydro to make repairs. “They acknowledged the cracking and attempted to make repairs in 2015 and 2018 but, as in the initial work, they used inadequate materials,” says CIS, which first detected the cracks in 2014.

The Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant during construction in 2013.

CIS says that it is only able to observe external cracking. “Undoubtedly, there is cracking under the concrete and steel plating that cannot be seen.” A full damage assessment would require removing all the concrete in the power generation area of the plant, which would cost as much as one billion dollars, CIS says.

The comptroller says that such an expense would be “almost incomprehensible,” representing more than a third of the $2.9 billion to build the plant. “Once we complete our analysis, we will obviously be in discussions with Sinohydro to find solutions. The government of Ecuador cannot be responsible for the failures of the contractor.”

CIS is also criticizing Sinohydro for failure to provide an adequate training program for the hydroelectric operating personnel at the plant. “This was part of the contract and it was not fulfilled.”

In public statements, the comptroller and other officials say the government of former president Rafael Correa is also responsible for the condition of Coca Codo Sinclair. “This was the emblematic project of the previous government and now we realize they failed to provide the oversight to insure that the work was done correctly,” said President Lenin Moreno in September. “They left the problems for the people of Ecuador to solve.”

The comptroller’s office said it hopes to complete its investigation by the end of the year.