CARBON IS DATED

Costa Rica 2018 | ENERGY | REVIEW

Costa Rica continues to build on its already formidable renewable energy matrix on the road to carbon neutrality.

Within the world of clean energy, Costa Rica needs no introduction. In 2016, the country made headlines worldwide for its unprecedented use of renewable sources of energy. At its longest stretch, Costa Rica's power generation needs were completely fulfilled by renewable energy for 110 continuous days, between June 17 and the October 6. A short skip afterwards and another stretch powered the country solely on clean power until December. In all, 250 of 2016's 365 days saw the Central American country power itself without needing to burn any fossil fuels. In this sense, Costa Rica's energy matrix is truly unparalleled.

The country's ability to boast such a clean power generation profile is based both on the strong environmental position the government has sustained over the years as well as its natural resources. Endowed with consistent rainfall throughout most of the year, hydropower has come to dominate the country's energy profile, with benefits both for the environment as well as its citizens, as the cost of power is relatively cheaper than other sources.

As it stands today, almost 98% of Costa Rica's power generation needs are met by hydro, geothermal power, solar, and wind power. 2016 was a particularly good year for hydropower production as a result of abundant rainfall. Weather conditions were expected to worsen in 2017, but the aquifers have remained at stable water levels.

On the road to 100%

Following on the build up of such a strong footing for renewable energy in the country, emboldened political leaders have decided to further take the lead on global environmental preservation and have set the goal to make Costa Rica the world's first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021.

The road to total renewable power generation may not be far at all. With an average of 75% of power generated from hydro, 13% from geothermal power, 10% from wind, and 1% from solar and biomass, it only needs a little nudge to compensate for the fluctuations in power supply to gain complete renewable generation. That nudge is already under development. 165MW of power from geothermal sources are right now being developed in Costa Rica according to the latest reports. This represents an 80% increase from the current 205MW of installed geothermal capacity. Furthermore, in October 2017, the Norwegian Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund) and Sunshine, a Costa Rican renewable energy company, signed an agreement that will see the facilitate financing for solar projects in the country, one of the sources of renewable power the least explored in Costa Rica. Even before the agreement, the Norwegian initiative had already contributed to small-scale solar power projects in the country; for instance, in the installation of a 19kW network of 64 solar panels at the San José Colonial Hotel.

Not so green

Yet, these developments in power generation are hardly enough to reach a carbon-neutral status. Costa Rica's energy needs are, in fact, still dominated by fossil fuels, as its expanding transportation system runs mostly on gasoline. In fact, despite its impressive power generation matrix, renewables only account for about a quarter of the country's overall energy consumption. Further, Costa Rica's car count is expanding rapidly, with around 290 cars per thousand people, higher than the world or the region's average. From those vehicles, by the end of 2016, only 2% were hybrid.
To be noted, carbon neutrality does not mean zero CO2 emissions, but that any carbon emissions are offset by carbon capturing structures, or in this case, Costa Rica's rain forest.
Either way, the road ahead is long, and conscious of the challenge, the Costa Rican government has launched a number of initiatives to change the sources of energy for the transport sector, and they are all-encompassing.
Charging batteries
One of the most obvious measures to achieve a reduction in gasoline consumption is electric cars. In October 2017, Costa Rica opened its 16th electric car charging station located in the Jacó Walk Shopping Centre. The installation of this and other stations came out of a joint initiative between the government, the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE), and the Advanced Institute of Science and Technology of South Korea (KAIST). ICE has gone a step further by ordering a fleet of 100 electric cars for its own use.
While infrastructure is quickly being put in place, offers must be created as well for consumers to be able to jump on the movement. The timing, then, could not be better, as major brands such as BMW, Nissan, and Hyundai are planning to start supplying fully electric cars to the Costa Rican market as early as 2018.
A bill is also under evaluation at the Legislative Assembly that could come to exonerate electric cars from taxation. If approved, new and used zero-emission cars up to 12 months old would be exempt from sales, consumption, and customs tax, as well as from the right of circulation for the first five years and any taxes on spare parts for the first 10 years.

This will potentially make adoption much quicker, but even in a cash-strapped society, things as they stand may already be attractive enough. At current electricity rates, fueling an electric car can be 7.5 times cheaper for the consumer than fueling a car with gasoline.

By road and by air

Private cars are, however, not the only problem, and a set of other initiatives have been making headlines in recent months as private and public actors tackle the environmental challenge on all fronts. A first for Costa Rica was the purchase of its first hydrogen cell-powered bus in November 2017. Part of the Hydrogen Ecosystem project, the move is being promoted by Costa Rican former astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, and will first be tested in Liberia before it starts operating in Costa Rica. The hydrogen-based electrical system allows the bus to generate its own electricity from vapor in a matter of minutes, foregoing the lengthy process of powering lithium batteries by connecting to the national grid, as conventional electric cars do. This holds considerable advantages for long-course transportation like inter-city buses and transportation trucks.
Elsewhere, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT), through the Directorate General of Traffic Engineering, announced in October 2017 that it will spend over USD1 million in the third stage of a project fitting traffic lights with solar-powered systems. A total of 76 new intersections should receive the system by the end of 2017, meaning that 235, half of the total 474 intersections connected within the integrated traffic light system, will be powered by solar by then.
In another first, in November 2017, the Costa Rican government also reached an agreement with Dutch national airline KLM to start working on the possibility of exclusively using bio-based jet fuel in flights operated to and from Costa Rica. KLM is currently the only European airline using this sort of fuel and says its use allows it to reduce carbon emissions by 80%, even though it is three times more expensive than regular jet fuel.