Costa Rica: Powered by renewables

As the world ponders an energy future that restricts fossil fuels, a tiny Central American nation may offer one model for a shift to renewables. Costa Rica has operated its electrical grid without relying on fossil fuels for more than 150 days so far this year, including one period of more than two months straight this summer. While cars are still powered by gasoline and two large cement plants burn coal, the country’s power grid is anchored largely in hydropower along with geothermal and wind energy. In 2015, renewables powered the electric grid for 299 days. The shift to renewable energy is part of a sweeping environmental initiative by the national government. Among other efforts, the initiative has resulted in Costa Rica becoming the only tropical country in the world that has reversed deforestation, according to the World Bank. This year, abundant rains have enabled Costa Rica to step up production at its hydroelectric facilities, which generate about 80 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Geothermal, wind contribute energy

Geothermal accounts for about 13 percent of the country’s electricity annually while wind turbines produce another 7 percent. Costa Rica also has a small number of solar installations. By comparison, the United States derives about 13 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including about half from hydropower. Coal and natural gas each contribute about a third of the total and nuclear power makes up 20 percent. Costa Rica’s accomplishment is remarkable. But other countries may not be able to develop the same heavy reliance on hydropower – especially larger ones with greater energy needs or ones that do not have an abundance of rivers.

Country’s small size, low energy needs are factors

Costa Rica’s small size, population and relatively low energy needs are major advantages in weaning off fossil fuels. Costa Rica covers about 20,000 square miles, about the land area of the states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. With a population of 5 million people, Costa Rica needed to generate nearly 11,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity last year, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. By contrast, the United States, with an estimated population of 323 million people, generated more than 350 times that amount of electricity, about 4 million gigawatt- hours, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Further limiting power consumption, the economy of Costa Rica is anchored by tourism and agriculture rather than more power-intensive industries such as mining and manufacturing.

Abundance in rain and water flows

Another major advantage Costa Rica has over other countries is a sheer abundance of water. Powerful rivers and year round rainfall enable heavy development of and reliance on hydropower. Costa Rica’s topography of steep mountains also lends itself to dam building. The country has four major hydropower installations, each with multiple turbines – Presa Sagregado, Cachi, Angostura, and Corobici – plus a number of small or medium sized facilities. Many countries cannot turn to water resources for such a large share of their power generation. In the United States, where rivers are plentiful, hundreds of hydro installations at nearly every suitable large river location still only generate about 7 percent of the nation’s energy. Globally, hydropower generates about 15 percent of the world’s electricity. Increasing that significantly by building more dams risks displacing people or harming wildlife habitat. Dam construction is particularly controversial in some parts of Asia where growing populations feed heavily on fish, which can be destroyed or prevented from spawning in large numbers by dams.


Massive new dam coming online

But Costa Rica is placing another big bet on hydropower: Reventazón, a massive hydroelectric project is about to come on line. The dam, with five turbines, will be able to generate more than 200 megawatts, enough to provide electricity to more than 500,000 homes. Construction of dam on the Reventazón River near Siquirres began in 2010. The 425-foot dam will hold up more than 30 billion gallons of water. It will be the largest dam in Central America and the second largest infrastructure project after the Panama Canal. “Reventazón will bring clean energy to the national electrical system that will be key for the country’s development,” said Carlos Obregón, executive president of the Costa Rican Energy Institute, which operates the country’s dams.

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