Costa Rica is famous for its golden beaches, diverse wildlife and incredible coffee. But here’s something you might not know: 99% of the country’s electricity is generated from clean, renewable sources. However, despite being renowned as one of the ‘greenest’ nations on earth, Costa Rica may not be as pristine as it initially seems…
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica has an abundant supply of free-flowing water. The country uses this to its advantage, with 78% of its electricity being produced by hydropower – harnessing the kinetic energy of falling or fast-moving water.
The Reventazón Dam is the largest hydro facility in Costa Rica and the largest dam in Central America. It has a capacity of 305.5 MW, which translates as enough electricity to power around 525,000 homes.
The $1.4 billion project came online in 2016 and has been praised as a model for future hydro plants, as it integrates environmental features such as offset habitats and migration corridors for jaguars and other species.
In addition to hydroelectricity, Costa Rica’s power grid relies on wind, geothermal, biomass and solar energy. Earlier this year, the national Institute of Electricity (ICE Group) confirmed that renewable generation methods supplied 99.62% of the country’s electricity demand in 2019. And they are hoping to get this figure up to 100% by 2021. The utility company estimates that avoiding the use of fossil fuels has saved Costa Rica around $482 million (USD) or €442 million over the past 20 years!
ICE Group says it does not foresee any major increase in electricity demand in the coming years. However, when existing hydropower plants need replacing, the focus will be on expanding wind, solar and geothermal capacity instead. Such generation methods can be built close to populated areas, where electricity is most needed. Whereas hydropower plants are often located in remote areas and require significant infrastructure to transport their electricity to the grid.
It is often argued that Costa Rica sets an unrealistic standard for environmental policies. It’s true that the nation is blessed with many of the raw ingredients required for a great sustainable recipe. For example, an extensive river network and high levels of rainfall enable production of hydroelectricity on a very large scale. Being located on the Pacific Ring of Fire also lends a plentiful selection of volcanos for geothermal power.
On top of this, Costa Rica has a relatively low power demand compared to other nations due to having no major industrial sector and a small population. The country is home to just five million inhabitants, spread over 51,000km2 of land. To put that in perspective, London has almost twice as many people living in an area 32 times smaller.
Whilst these factors are certainly helpful when it comes to sustainability, other countries need not copy Costa Rica’s initiatives specifically. What’s important is the commitment to reducing carbon emissions. In fact, while developed countries may not possess the natural resources that Costa Rica does, many have a much more substantial pot of funds at their disposal, which could be directed to research, design and construction of clean energy systems.
On the face of it, Costa Rica’s credentials are impressive. It is the only nation in the world to meet all five of the sustainability criteria set by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and has twice ranked as the top performing country in the Happy Planet Index (a measure of wellbeing and ecological impact introduced by the New Economics Foundation, NEF).
It is a world leader in eco-tourism – welcoming visitors in a way that preserves the natural environment and benefits the local communities – and demonstrates a strong commitment to nature conservation. In fact, Costa Rica is the only tropical country in the world that has actually reversed deforestation.
In terms of its carbon footprint, Costa Rica’s high percentage of renewably generated electricity is undoubtedly good news. Plus, the country boasts the highest level of access to electricity in Central America – 99.5%!
Costa Rica is committed to becoming the world’s first totally carbon neutral economy by 2050. While clean electricity is a vital step towards this, the journey is far from over.
Electricity is only one aspect of energy usage, and overall Costa Rica still relies on fossil fuels more than renewable power. For example, oil and gas are used in heating and cooking.
However, the most significant contributor to the country’s total emissions is the transport sector. The proportion of Costa Rican citizens who own their own car is high and as the country develops, the demand for private vehicles is rising. The majority of these vehicles run on traditional combustion engines, guzzling petrol and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
To achieve its goal of carbon neutrality, Costa Rica is now focusing on modernising its transport network to include more electric vehicles. The Government has proposed various initiatives to encourage this, including introducing tax exemptions on the import of electric cars and improving the national network of public charging stations. There will also be a push to decarbonise public transport networks and encourage people to use these rather than private vehicles. Metropolitan areas like the capital, San José, are particular targets.
Shifting to a completely clean energy system could be a big challenge for a country that’s not yet fully developed. However, Costa Rica has demonstrated that sustainability is an issue close to its heart and a serious priority for the future. Watch this space.
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