The Power of Water and Volcanoes: Costa Rica’s Remarkable Renewable Energy Record

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Costa_Rica Costa Rica has set an amazing record. For the first 75 days of 2015, the Central American nation powered the entire country with renewable energy. Recently the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the state-run power supplier, confirmed the nation of 5 million has been mostly fuelled by hydropower from four major dams. Heavy rain from January through to the end of March gave the hydropower plants an extra boost. Other renewable energy sources that Costa Rica relies on are solar, geothermal and wind power.

Since a steady flow of water is not sustainable due to the increasing vagaries of weather, Costa Rica plans to expand the use of geothermal power, tapped from its many volcanoes. Geothermal energy generates around 15 percent of the nation’s power according to ICE. A new geothermal project commissioned last year by the government at a cost of $958 million will aid the small country in reaching its goal of being “carbon neutral” by 2021. Last year, all but six per cent of its energy was generated renewably. Iceland, Paraguay, Brazil, Lesotho, Norway and Albania also rely on renewable energy but if Costa Rica reaches its 2021 goal, it will likely be the first country to do so.

Geothermal energy is created when the hot magma of volcanoes comes in contact with water, creating steam. The steam is captured and then used to move power turbines. An advantage of geothermal power is that it is abundant, consistently generated and not dependent on weather conditions. The Miravalles Geothermal Field, which consists of five plants, opened in 1994. The Pailas Geothermal Power Plan opened in 2011, just outside the Pailas section of Rincon de la Vieja National Park.

 

Finding a Balance

 

One problem for the growth of geothermal power in Costa Rica, however, is that most volcanoes are located within national parks and the country has a law prohibiting the extraction of resources from these protected spaces. In December, President Luis Guillermo Solis announced that he would not support geothermal energy generation in the country’s parks during his time in office. This is despite the fact that there are three bills before the Legislative Assembly aimed at expanding geothermal energy production, including inside national parks.

Costa_Rica_hydroCosta Rica’s energy use has been rising at a rate of 5.3 per cent annually. With the demand for power increasing and the unpredictability of weather and water volume to generate hydro electricity, geothermal power may be the best carbon-free solution. The trick would be extraction without eco-system destruction. When asked how building a new plant would affect the environment, Eddy Rivera Sanchez, director of geothermal resources for ICE, noted in a recent National Geographic article, “The effects would be of a level that wouldn’t cause irreversible damage.” In the same article Alvaro Ugalde, a conservation leader who helped found the national park system in the 1970s, notes that ICE needs to “work together” with the park service so all interests are covered.

Costa Rica is a nation with a reputation for fiercely protecting the environment. It also has growing energy needs that must be met. Conservationists, electricity suppliers and other nations looking for renewable energy solutions will be watching closely to see how the problem is solved. They are almost there now, but becoming 100 per cent carbon neutral will involve a very delicate walk in the park.

 

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Maureen Littlejohn

Maureen, a seasoned travel writer and communications consultant, currently lives in Hanoi and works with the Uniterra program as a communications/marketing advisor for a local partner college.

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