Costa Rica’s Clean-Energy Model: A Viable Global Solution?
Costa Rica just hit a milestone in its environmental agenda. For the first 75 days of 2015, the country was powered entirely by renewable energy sources. No coal. No petroleum. Not a single fossil fuel!
How did Costa Rica manage to pull that off? Thanks largely to four hydroelectric plants and a bit of luck—periods of unusually heavy rainfall filled the plants’ reservoirs. Geothermal, solar and wind plants also generated little boosts, as needed, allowing the country to do without hydrocarbons and promote sustainable lifestyles.
All this has been bringing electricity prices down—a trend that will carry on in the second quarter of this year. In fact, this April alone, rates are set to drop by 7 to 15 percent. But while its first-quarter performance was record-breaking, Costa Rica is no stranger to making huge strides in the clean-energy field. Last year, it generated 95 to 99 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, with hydropower plants accounting for 80 percent.
Costa Rica’s main goal is to be carbon-neutral by 2021. Getting a whole country to run 100 percent on renewable energy is an enormous task. There’s no telling if Costa Rica can get the job done in time. But perhaps its strong start this year is a sign that greater things are to come.
Wouldn’t it be great if other countries could follow Costa Rica’s lead? Can’t clean-energy production be implemented on a global scale?
As impressive as Costa Rica’s model is and as amazing as it would be to have all countries on the same page, there are limitations to consider and challenges to tackle. And for a planet that is still nearly 90 dependent on fossil fuels for electricity, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
To understand just how long and difficult the road ahead is, let’s first take a closer look at Costa Rica’s program and plans and whether its approach is viable in other parts of the world.
What the downside to hydropower is?
Rainfall played a critical role in Costa Rica’s feat. Consistent and heavy downpours in past months filled the country’s dams and in turn enabled its hydropower plants to fulfill electricity needs.
But what if it doesn’t rain as hard or as often and the local water supply isn’t as abundant? Can Costa Rica still rely primarily on hydropower?
Probably not. Water flow, after all, varies seasonally. Plus, climate change has made rain patterns even more unpredictable. And that’s something Costa Rica knows too well. In fact, just last year, the country suffered one of its worst droughts ever, hindering hydropower generation terribly. Local utility companies were therefore forced to burn fossil fuels in order to produce enough electricity.
You should know too that large-scale hydropower canhurt the environment, specifically riparian ecosystems (grasses, shrubs and trees growing along streams, lakes and rivers) and passing fish. Costa Rica is aware that it can’t always count on or be fully dependent on its hydroelectric dams. So it has been diversifying into technologies that support sustainable lifestyles (e.g., small wind turbines, solar, biogas from organic waste). Its latest focus, however, is geothermal energy.
What Costa Rica is gearing up for?
Costa Rica also happens to have rich volcano resources, which it plans to tap further with the construction of additional geothermal plants.
The $958 million project, approved in mid-2014 and co-funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the European Investment Bank, is already under way.
About $333 will be spent on the first plant, which will generate 55MW. Two more plants, each to generate 50MW, will also be built nearby. Once completed and operational, the plants are estimatedto produce electricity at a rate of five cents per kilowatt-hour. Now that’s good news for local residents, especially those leading a biotarian lifestyle.
Why it works for Costa Rica?
Yes, Costa Rica is on a roll. So what gives the country an edge in clean-energy production? How is it able to step up its game?
Costa Rica, for one, is not as big of an energy consumer as most developed nations are. That’s partly because the major industries here are agriculture and tourism. You won’t see much of those heavy and energy-intensive industries like manufacturing and mining.
Plus, note that Costa Rica is a small country. Its population is under 5 million. And at 51,000 square kilometers, its total area is just about half of that of Kentucky, a U.S. state. It also helps (a lot) that Costa Rica is blessed with the topographical features—rivers, mountains and volcanoes—that lend themselves well to renewable energy.
Then there’s the fact that the country, since 1948, hasn’t had a military force and therefore doesn’t need to set aside funds for defense.
So, Costa Rica is able to allocate more for clean-energy projects and has the natural resources that those projects require. And given its size and industries, the country uses much less power and thus can more easily meetelectricity needs using renewable energy, all whilekeeping their resources intact.
What else can be done?
Not all countries, however, can follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps. Large and highly industrialized nations have greater energy demands. Those with limited budgets may not be able to make room for sustainability projects. And those that aren’t as lucky, geography-wise, will find it difficult or risky to tap renewable resources.
There’s actually a lot at stake if the world were to relysolely on renewable energy. Just imagine the environmental loss we would face. Chances are rivers would be altered and vegetation destroyed. Animals and humans alike might also be displaced.
And we would still need fossil fuels as backup. What if we don’t get sufficient sunshine or wind or rainfall for a stretch of time? What power source would we tap?
Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no other non-polluting options. Nuclear power, for instance, could make for a clean-energy alternative, if it can be safely and cost-effectively harnessed. And that’s where richer nations can step in. Investments in the research and design of new eco-friendly sources can go a long way in improving global energy production and consumption.
It’s also worth mentioning that, besides Costa Rica, a number of other countries are now running mainly on renewable energy, making it easier for its residents to lead a biotarian lifestyle. The list includes Iceland, Paraguay, Brazil, Albania, Norway, Lesotho, Estonia, Sweden, Bulgaria and Bonaire, a Dutch island territory located off the coast of Venezuela.
That list will get longer in the years ahead, as more countries take on the challenge of operating on clean-energy sources. And while Costa Rica’s model might not be realistic in certain nations, its remarkable achievements will surely inspire the rest of the world to kick up a notch their own efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, encourage sustainable lifestyles and ultimately save our planet.