Perpetual Generation

Perpetual  Generation

Feb. 2, 2017

It gets more difficult by the year to remember for which landmark progressive achievement Costa Rica is best known. For much of the 20th Century—particularly in a region wrecked by Cold War violence—the small Central American nation was celebrated as one of the only countries on earth without a military (the institution having been banned in 1948). Then, in 2012, it became the first to ban recreational hunting. More recently, however, it has set its sights even higher. In 2007, Costa Rica announced its intention to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021. And already it is making good on that claim.

In 2015, renewables accounted for 99% of the country's electricity, and it ran completely on renewable sources for 285 days that year. As if to top that, 2016 witnessed an equally landmark achievement: from July 17 to September 2, the country powered its electricity grid 100% on renewables—over 120 days in a row without any reliance on fossil fuels. It is now in a dead heat with New Zealand to see which will be the first country on earth to purge carbon from its diet altogether. For a developing but environmentally minded country rich in natural resources, including its precious rain forests, and heavily reliant upon ecotourism, carbon neutrality seems like a no-brainer. What could possibly be the catch?

The caveat is that most of this clean energy is from hydropower—some 80% in 2015 alone. And the trouble with relying upon hydro to replace fossil fuels is at least two-fold: first, in Costa Rica, it is heavily dependent upon rainfall. No rain, no hydropower—what is here today is literally gone tomorrow. And should it fail to rain in Costa Rica, the only way to make up the difference is by burning fossil fuels, thus driving up energy costs and increasing its carbon footprint at the same time. Thus, while Costa Rica's reservoirs were full in 2015 and 2016, the country's northwest suffered the worst droughts the country had seen since the 1950s as recently as 2012-14.

The second problem with hydro in a country dependent upon rainfall is that increases in the latter are themselves likely due to climate change—not to mention increasingly prone to broader unstable weather patterns. And while it makes sense to capitalize on natural strengths such as abundant rainfall—even when it stems from the very structural forces (i.e. global warming and climate change) a policy is designed to forestall—it is harder to make the case that Costa Rica might serve as a model for countries with vastly different natural endowments.

All the same, the small Central American nation is rushing forward at incredible speed. In May 2016, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) finally connected Reventazón, Central America's largest hydroelectric project, to the rest of Costa Rica's electricity grid. Under construction for six years, the dam's five turbines are expected to be fully operational by the end of 2016, at which point the dam will have a generating capacity of 305.5MW and sufficient energy to power 525,000 homes. The largest public infrastructure project in the Caribbean since the Panama Canal over a century ago, the dam that feeds the plant is 130m high and can handle 118 million cubic meters of water from the Reventazón River. Prior to its completion, four older river-powered dams provide the bulk of the hydropower that accounts for 80% of Costa Rica's annual energy consumption. ls of algae, not to mention the massive disruption of both human and natural landscapes these projects inevitably have. While the government has shown some sensitivity on this issue—for example when President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a 25-year moratorium in 2015 to protect the (tourist-friendly) Pacuare and Savegre Rivers from damming—it is still moving aggressively in other parts of the country. For several years the government has been pushing for an even bigger dam near Buenos Aires in the country's Southern Zone. Though contested by indigenous groups who never consented to the plan, if it goes ahead, the Diquís project, as it is known, would be twice as large as Reventazón, with 652MW, according to ICE.

After hydroelectric, geothermal provided around 13% of Costa Rica's total energy supply in 1H2016. Here, Costa Rica's diverse, scarcely populated, and abundant natural resources have come in handy—but so have its international relationships and the good will it has garnered in global circles for its determined highly publicized efforts to develop renewables. In August 2016, Japan agreed to lend Costa Rica USD224 million to finance part of the construction of a geothermal plant in Liberia, Guanacaste province. Agreed upon by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), and the Costa Rican Finance Ministry, the 40-year loan comes with a 10-year grace period and a favorable 0.6% interest rate. The ICE's executive director, Carlos Obregón, said he expected this to be but the first of many clean energy projects in conjunction with the Japanese in years to come.

The project consists of building three geothermal plants in an area near the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, where the plants can harness the heat and power of the high-temperature magma abundant in the area. Labeled Pailas II and Borinquen I and II, the plants are expected to each generate 55MW. Borinquen I is expected to cost USD234 million, Borinquen II USD157 million, and Las Pailas II USD167. ICE will foot the remainder of the bill with the help of a USD70 million loan from the European Investment Bank that was approved in 2014. Las Pailas II is expected to be operational by 2019, and Borinquens I and II in 2023 and 2025, respectively. With the completion of these three plants, the country's total installed geothermal capacity will be 372MW, vastly increasing total output for a country that is already the world's seventh largest producer of geothermal energy. That said, geothermal also has its critics, and it is not just conservationists that are worried about the destruction of national forests, and their wildlife and natural habitats.

Luckily, the windiest time of year in Costa Rica is from January to March, a period that coincides rather conveniently with the country's driest period, when rivers and reservoirs reach their lowest annual levels. In addition to the ten farms already operational, private firms had plans to construct another five wind farms in 2016, while the National Power and Light Company (CNFL) laid out plans to build another in 2017. The rest of the country's energy supply came from biomass and solar, the later only accounting for 0.01% in 2016.
Despite the innovative ways in which the country's public and private sectors are pursuing renewables, these combined efforts have done little to reduce the country's overall fossil fuel consumption, since the vast majority of all transportation relies upon petrol and gas. While transportation accounts for 70% of the country's consumption of fossil fuels, it also accounts for 40% of the country's total carbon emissions. With only about 200 hybrid cars in the entire country, diesel buses remain the country's most popular mode of transportation. To be sure, the government is well aware of these limitations, which is one of the reasons it launched an initiative to convert 20-25% of all the country's buses and taxis to electric vehicles. Though unsuccessful, the government also launched an 11-month program to encourage taxis to make the switch to hybrid cars, showing that not only its heart is in the right place—if only it could convert those of its compatriots.

The real challenge in curbing Costa Rica's emissions, most observers maintain, is private automobiles, more than half of which are older models with highly polluting engines. While the Ministry of the Environment has initiated a buy-back plan for old polluting clunkers that has not been without success, most agree that the surest way to reduce the country's carbon footprint is the introduction of cleaner public transport. As Mónica Araya, the director of environmental think tanks Costa Rica Limpia and Nivela, said: “A train isn't rocket science. It isn't the most expensive solution. It's doable.”

Environment Minister Edgar Gutiérrez reiterated this sentiment. “It is absolutely a priority,” he said. “The goal is an urban transport system that is reliable, safe and dependable. We are looking not only at trains but also trams and even gondolas.” Thus the country's two-fold goal for 2017: remain on pace to reach carbon neutrality by 2021, while drastically lowering its transportation sector's reliance on fossil fuels. Though both very difficult, if successful will merit the world's attention for more years to come.