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Costa Rica’s renewable energy streak in perspective

costa rica renewable energyCosta Rica made environmental news again this week, after announcing that it was well on its way to running for a year, solely on renewable energy. At this time the country has been running only renewable energy plants for exactly 200 days, and it could very well make it to a year if the weather plays along during these next 2 months.

We’re very happy with the news, but unfortunately the announcement has also been plagued with a lot of hype and misinterpretation. Many are seeing this as definitive proof that we can just throw out all fossil fuels, and finally solve the carbon emissions and climate change problem. After all, an entire country has been running on clean energy and the rest of the world should be able to do the same! Right?

Well, not exactly. As with any major environmental announcement it should be taken with a grain of salt. Costa Rica’s renewable energy streak certainly is remarkable, but you can’t ignore that the news is plagued with a whole lot of political interest and a few important caveats that aren’t getting mentioned. So while this seems to be a step in the right direction, here’s a few points to consider on the side when you’re reading about Costa Rica sustainable energy boom:

Costa Rica only has 5 million people and 51,000 km2

The first thing you have to consider about Costa Rica when evaluating the use of it sustainable energy feet is that the country only has 5 million people, that makes it smaller than most countries in the world and insignificant compared to developing countries. 51,000 km is about the size of West Virginia, even smaller if we get down to details. And of that, only about 7% is actually occupied by cities. The rest of the land is not urban in nature.

Providing energy for a country that small is a challenge, but by no means can it be compared to the job of providing energy to most countries in the world, which way bigger cities both in area and population. You can run a country that small on renewable energy for long periods of time because the amount of energy you require is small enough to be provided by renewable sources. But try to do that on a larger scale in a developed country, and you’re probably going to run into trouble really fast.

In Costa Rica industry is small and energy consumption moderate

Not only is Costa Rica small country with a small population but it’s industrial sector is more moderate than in other developed countries. Most energy-consuming economic activity in Costa Rica has to do with information and not so much with production of goods, and that makes for less demand on the energy systems.

The weather in Costa Rica is fair and stable

One of the most energy hungry applications in cities tends to be heating and air-conditioning. Most of the major blackout seeing in the past decade in large cities of the world have been caused precisely by overloads to the electric grid from air-conditioning and heating systems.

Weather is also an advantage that place in favor Costa Rica’s renewable energy system. The country has a pretty stable temperature range, with very few extremes. During the coldest months the temperature only goes down to about 10C in the worst of cases, and during the hottest month the most you get is about 40C. keep in mind, those are the temperature extremes, the average temperature in Costa Rica is a whole lot milder and in the most populated areas near the capital, it tends to hover around 20C all year long.

That means that the amount of air-conditioning you’re going to have is small compared to countries in other latitudes. And it means that you can run on renewable energy and low output power sources without having to worry about heat waves were cold spells overloading your power grid.

Costa Rica’s renewable energy is based mainly on hydroelectric power

costa rica renewable energyWhen you hear renewable energy you immediately think of huge fields of solar panels and wind farms. The truth of the matter is in Costa Rica those energy sources are an absolute minimum. Windfarms are a small source of energy (and in fact recent windfarm projects in CR have been qualified by experts as a flop), and there is no significant solar generation aside from solar panels installed on a few buildings here and there.

Most renewable energy in Costa Rica comes from hydroelectric power plants, which convert the force of flowing water into energy. Hydroelectric power plants despite being a zero emissions are not without environmental consequences. In fact of the renewable energy sources, hydro is the one with the heaviest environmental impact. Building a hydroelectric power plant involves flooding large areas of land, affecting large forest areas which previously had been untouched by humans, and permanently limiting the amount of water that flows downstream in a river. Costa Rica’s power plants are located on some of its largest rivers, and even though their impact is carefully controlled and designed, there’s consequences on wildlife and other important activities that need the river like tourism and agriculture.

Costa Rica is absolutely not free of oil-based generation

Don’t think for a second that Costa Rica has 100% renewable energy power plants. That’s far from the truth. Costa Rica still has plenty of fuel-based energy plants, some as big as 200 MW. And what’s even worse, those fuel-based energy plants use some of the least efficient types of fuel available: diesel and bunker.

costa rica renewable energyAnd recently it’s come to light that Costa Rica is planning on building more fuel-based energy plants in upcoming years. According to power companies, the country can’t hold on with just renewable energy sources.

Fuel based energy plants are not only expensive to operate, but they’re also expensive to not operate. While the country is running on renewable energy, fuel based plants go offline but still require maintenance, monitoring and supplies. Those costs, in the end, get added to the electric bill, and consumers end up paying for the fuel based plants they don’t use.

Costa Rica has one of the highest energy costs in its region

Running on renewable energy should be cheap, much cheaper than running a country on oil or nuclear sources. However, that’s not the case in Costa Rica. The country has one of the highest electric costs in the region, a topic which often stirs controversy in the economic sector. The past few years have seen the end of large production plants which have gone to other countries which offer better conditions and lower energy costs. Among them is Intel’s famed microprocessor plant, which was moved to Asia after more than 20 years of producing hardware in Costa Rica.

A country can have clean, renewable energy. But if that energy is not cheap enough to be purchased by major consumers, it’s really not worthwhile. There is no point in having a zero emissions energy system if in the end you can’t use that energy to generate jobs and revenue.

Despite it all, Costa Rica still has serious environmental issues

Despite all this renewable energy hype, Costa Rica still has some very serious environmental issues that it hasn’t addressed. Water quality is one of them. Most of the country’s rivers and the beaches near those rivers still suffer from severe pollution due to raw sewage being pumped into them.

Air quality is also a concern especially in the bigger cities, where thousands of motor vehicles (including hundreds of public buses) moved through the streets belching out clouds of black smoke all day long. And despite the fact that local authorities have been warned about the air-quality problem, they make no attempt at regulating the offending vehicles. Electric vehicles are pretty much nonexistent, and there’s been no serious attempt at moving the transportation systems (which is where most of the carbon emissions occur these days) to cleaner energy sources.

Unauthorized logging is also a major problem in Costa Rica, which is mostly ignored by authorities. There still parts of the country where unauthorized logging takes place, which destroys high-quality forests and kills hundreds of wildlife specimens each year. Solutions (like monitoring critical areas by drone) are availble, but one again, for the most part they’re ignored by authorities.

So what can be said about Costa Rica’s 200 days of renewable energy?

Of course, Costa Rica is to be commended on its 200 day streak of renewable energy. It’s a great example for other countries and an interesting proof of concept exercise.

But when you get down to the fine details, you start to realize that 200 day streak isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There is a lot of minute details involved that make Costa Rica’s model very difficult or impossible to apply to developed countries, which is where the major carbon emissions problem is right now. And at the same time, you realize that there’s a lot of stuff that’s not being said about the consequences of keeping that renewable energy model, mainly on consumers that are the ones that have confront the bills related to the renewable energy they consume.

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