Imagine an infrastructure project that could make shipping cheaper, quicker and much safer, while at the same time dramatically reducing our dependence on fossil fuel.

Imagine if once completed, this project could be powered entirely by renewable energy and run for over a century without an upgrade. But then, consider the thought of  building it with steam shovels instead of modern earthmoving equipment –  in a part of the world notorious for lethal diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, when you don’t have any insecticides.

That’s the story of the US-led project to build the Panama Canal.

It opened in 1914 after 11 years of construction. Accidents and diseases cost the lives of an estimated 5,600 workers – a death toll inconceivable for any infrastructure project today, and yet many historians suspect the true death toll may have been far higher.

It was a very different era. An earlier French-led attempt to build the canal had cost even more lives – as many as 20,000 before collapsing into bankruptcy.

When the canal finally opened in 1914, it cut the sea distance between the east and west coasts of the USA by 6,500 kilometres. Ships no longer had to make the perilous voyage via Tierra del Fuego and the Southern Ocean. The canal was capable of carrying the largest ships then afloat, and the capacity of its locks came to define what would become the standard for an entirely new class of shipping – Panamax ships.

USS Missouri, one of the Iowa-class battleships, makes a very tight fit as she passes through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal in October 1945.

USS Missouri makes a very tight fit as she passes through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal in October 1945.

Ships meeting that standard had the flexibility to ply almost any trade route in the world. The US navy mandated that all of its ships be capable of using the canal. A requirement only relaxed at the end of World War 2, when the design requirements of large aircraft carriers made it impossible..

In the latter part of the 20th century, traffic through the Panama canal began to approach its maximum capacity. At the same time, technology advances in shipping began to favour freight vessels too large for the canal. Panama responded by building a new set of locks capable of handling ships 2.6 times larger. These new locks opened in 2016 and established a new shipping standard – simply named  New Panamax.

The old locks remain very much in use – now into their second century of service – an impressive testament to the thoughtfulness of the original design.

They are entirely powered by gravity –  by water flowing from one level to another. Even the electricity to power the lock’s gates and its small locomotive mules is generated from a hydro-plant built into the canal’s Lake Gatun.

Work on the canal began five years before Henry Ford made his first  model-T.  In 1903 the world was still very much in the steam-age. Energy was neither plentiful nor cheap. It was common sense to take advantage of “natural” – or renewable – energy wherever possible.

Shortly after the canal was built the oil industry came of age and dominated the world for a hundred years. The Age of Oil made energy abundant, and for a time inexpensive – until we began to understand that the true cost of fossil fuel also includes climate change and global heating.

More than a century after it opened, the Panama canal is a powerful reminder of the enduring value that can be achieved with good design and  renewable energy.