La Fortuna Power Plant

Living in Boquete Panama I have been exposed to talk about La Fortuna power plant. I have driven over two dams called La Fortuna, one in route to Almirante the other near Gulaca but I have never seen turbines or spillways or electric lines leading away form those bridges. Being a former Arizonan I am accustomed to the massive infrastructure at Boulder Dam on the Arizona Nevada border. La Fortuna does not appear to have any of that.

This time as I was driving from Almirante I stopped at the dam and visitors center and discovered the difference. The dam does hold a reservoir but unlike hydroelectric plants I have seen before the generators are not in the dam but in an underground tunnel down hill from the dam.

I make no claim to know anything about this technology and whether it is better, worse or for a different environment than some of raging rivers of North America. I did take a few photos of the reservoir and a model of the total infrastructure in the visitors center.

I f any reader can shed light on this design please do.


  1. Lee,
    On the TN river here in TN. the dams are like the ones you are famliar with. The water passes through turbines and churns out below the dam. However in Ga and Alabama I have seen technology similar to what you list above. I dont think they are popular because they can have an effect on the ecosystem of the river below. Water from the lower reaches of the lake can be much colder and depending on the depth of the lake even be lacking in oxygen.
    I dont know if that is a concern in the layout you show because of the distance the water travels through piping and it might even get oygenated by the actual turbines.
    By the way we loved our trip to Boquete and Panama City.Sorry we missed you.

  2. The Fortuna dam on the Caldera (Gualaca) takes the water through a culvert to the left , alongside the road for a way, and then into a large resevoir which cannot be seen from the road. If you look through the trees in places you can just see the top of the resevoir bank. From there it goes through a tunnel, presumably into the turbines and then returns to the river south of Gualaca. The power station is on the left, just out of Gualaca on the road to Chiriqui Grande.

  3. Peter Orgain says:

    The La Fortuna project is pretty benign environmentally. First, you have a 15,000 hectare protected watershed that is an eden as an undisturbed ecosystem. Second, the system is a renewable resource that is displacing enormous amounts of fossil fuels as a fuel supply. Thirdly, the Chiriqui River that starts at the foot of the dam still has flow for aquatic life, albeit smaller than it would be without the dam. Fourthly, it provides full time employment for many local people.

  4. I think it is short sighted to see La Fortuna project as benign environmentally. When a dam is put into a watershed it completely changes the traffic on the river for wildlife up and down stream. The Local people loose a substantial amount of land that is submerged beneth the reservoir. Jobs, Tourism, Food, Habitat are all changed. Dams are renewable resources only if they are sustainable.
    The amount of silt that is flushed through this drainage in the rainy months is huge. That silt plays a huge roll in ecosystems, sending large amounts of nutrient down stream creating habitat and food sources for many organisms. If this silt doesn’t have a way to flush down stream then it will build up behind the dam and slowly reduce the capacity for power, water quality and flood control thus becoming less sustainable. The build up of nutrient behind the dam can lead to mats of algae and a build up in plant life that can cut down on the O2 in the water for fish. This then changes the ecosystem dramatically reducing fish populations resulting in drops in predator populations. As for the river still providing habitat for life below the dam that is misleading. The water coming out of the dam will be colder then it was in the past since water is will be released from the bottom rather then spilling over the top like natural lakes do. This affects fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustations and their food sources down stream who are not used to the temperature change. Also the nutrient that was once in the water has been stopped behind the dam and that affects food availability down stream as far away as in the mangrove swamps along the coast. Some species rely on access to different parts of the river for different life functions. Small tributaries where the volume of water was less become inaccessible once a block is made in the water shed… like a dam.
    The employment opportunities that are gained often come at expense to the community who used the river in its natural state. Fishing is changed, travel options are changed the environment IS CHANGED. The people who are being displaced by the dam are skilled in crafts that can become impossible to pursuit after the ecosystem changes due to land loss, species inability to adapt or reduction in tourism. Tourism to a river due to its beauty and or adventure opportunities is also affected as the ecosystem changes. Another issue in Panama is access to dam sites and reservoirs due to security and many areas that were once commonly used for fishing and recreation become off limits to the local populations once the dam is built. Jobs created by the dam site may not be given to the local population as often times this is a skilled job that the local population is not trained for so jobs our out sourced. Temporary employment occurs during the construction faze but may not continue once the dam is completed.
    I guess where I am going with this is that a dam project is a HUGE HUGE change to the environment. A once sustaining resource that provides homes, nutrient, food, jobs, and natural flood protection to many populations of animals and humans is now changed forever. This being said, there are goods that come from building a Dam: electricity, water storage, potential flood control, jobs etc… However these need to be weighed carefully and looked at beyond the first 10, 20, 50 years of the life of the dam and determined as to whether this is truly a sustainable project.

  5. The la Fortuna Project is a very interesting Project. The water intake is located near the dam and it looks like a Concrete Building, you should have seen it from the visitors center. The dam on the side does the same job like the other dam at the Hydroelectric Project up in Arizona. The water stored there is just the energy stored in the cup, ready to be used by the Hydro turbines to generate electricity that will be used by all customers throughout the country. The water is deviated thru a pressure tunnel then on to a penstock down to the power plant that is approximately 420 meters below ground. At the plant there are 3 hydro turbines (pelton type), each 100 MW. The electrical power generated by the turbines is sent thru power cables thru a vertical shaft that they call the cable shaft on to the Electrical Sub Station outside. There is a pretty nice building outside, in front of the Substation, called the SCADA Building, from where the 3 units are being controlled remotelly. The operators start, stop, and control the power generated by the units from the SCADA building. This is very amazing to see and if you have the chance, next time you visit Chiriqui call these guys and ask for a permit to visit the Plant, you wont regret it. The SCADA building is a monument to the Hughe Plant that was built underground. Just like you said, it is different from many other plants, here you dont see much, because the engineering project is all “hidden” from everybody. Guys like Edwin Fabrega (who use to be IRHEĀ“s director) thought that the SCADA building had to be erected there (and glorious as it looks) because this was the best testimony oa the wounderful underground project. Hope this helped you.


  1. [...] my recent trip to Bocas del Toro I saw a finished Hydro project, La Fortuna. That project is not new and I have little awareness of the impact on the area around La Fortuna. I [...]

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