By Tim Johnson

McClatchy Foreign Staff

RIVAS, Nicaragua — How quickly can a nation wean itself from fossil fuels and move toward reliance on renewable energy? In the case of Nicaragua, very, very fast.

So fast, in fact, that Nicaragua is drawing a parade of distinguished admirers coming to examine how the nation is radically changing its energy footprint with an aggressive goal of becoming a green-energy powerhouse.

“This is a very impressive wind park,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said July 29, visiting windmills near this city on Lake Nicaragua. “Your country has vast potential of renewable energy resources — solar, wind, you have very strong, constant wind, and geothermal and hydro. You are quite lucky.”

Nearly as breathtaking as the speed at which Nicaragua has embraced private renewable-energy plants is its emergence in less than a decade from an energy crisis of constant rotating blackouts.

“We were facing power rationing of up to 12 hours a day,” said Lizeth Zuniga, executive director of the Renewable Energy Association of Nicaragua, a group representing private companies.

High global prices for oil had socked Nicaragua. So legislators passed a law in 2005 giving renewable energy companies a tax holiday and permitting them to import equipment and machinery duty-free.

“We were going to move from around 80 percent dependency on oil for our energy to around 80 percent dependency on renewables over the course of a 10-year period,” said Javier Chamorro, head of ProNicaragua, an export promotion agency.

What happened next surprised even the government. Private capital poured in. Wind parks mushroomed. Sugar producers built plants to turn sugar-cane stalks into fuel. U.S. and Canadian companies explored heat reservoirs around volcanoes.

“Other countries evolved gradually. Nicaragua just leaped ahead,” Zuniga said.

“You have to wait till the moment is right, and that’s exactly what Nicaragua did,” said Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho, lead energy specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington.

Nicaragua tapped its abundant geographical advantages. Set in the Central American isthmus, it’s on the Pacific Rim’s ring of fire. It is a land of steady winds, huge lakes, tropical sun and rumbling volcanoes.

“Nicaragua has 19 volcanoes. There’s a lot of heat down there,” said Lal Marandin, a French consultant on renewable energy based in Nicaragua.