With Costa Rica’s demand for energy growing just over 5% a year, planners at the government institute in charge of the nation’s energy supply – the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) – are looking for ways to meet that need. Historically, the answer has been, for the most part, electricity produced by dams.
As ICE looks to the future, it considers a growing number of options, yet continues to depend largely on hydroelectric power. Many see hydroelectricity as a relatively clean and renewable source of energy, and Costa Rica has the potential to create plenty of it.
However, hydroelectric projects across the country have also met with stiff resistance from community, environmental and indigenous groups who question the projects’ benefits and say the true extent of the environmental damage they cause is not being taken into consideration.
Case-in-point is the Boruca Hydroelectric Project, a planned dam that would attempt to capitalize on the largest water basin in the country, the Grande de Térraba River basin, in the center of the Southern Zone. The project has been in the works for decades, undergoing suspensions, changes and evolutions since the 1960s. But thanks to a recent push, it is now closer than ever to becoming a reality (see separate story).
Costa Rica’s electricity demand is growing at a rate of about 5.3% per year, according to the Electricity Institute, and is expected to maintain that growth rate for the next decade or so.Marco Tapia, director of the Boruca project, says that means Costa Rica will need to double its energy-production capacity in the next 10-12 years.
Costa Rica now has an installed capacity of 1,958 megawatts (MW), meaning that is how much Costa Rica’s existing infrastructure could potentially produce if it all ran at once at full capacity. Actual usage, however, is less. According to Javier Orozco, the director of planning for ICE’s electricity expansion, current demand is approximately 1,400 MW.
The ICE Expansion Plan, which lays out the institute’s future energy strategy, forecasts the installation of 506 MW of capacity between now and 2010, not counting the 631 MW Boruca project. (Boruca is not expected to be functional until 2015 or 2016.) Of the new projects, 340 MW would be hydroelectric, 116 MW thermal (using fossil fuel) and 50 MW wind power.
Like the existing infrastructure, some of the future projects would be private, as Costa Rican law allows for private companies to produce up to 15% of the nation’s power. According to Tapia, as of December 2004, private companies accounted for 204 MW of installed capacity, about 10.4% of the national capacity. ICE buys power from these companies and sends it through its transmission lines – an ICE monopoly – to various stations that distribute the power. Energy distribution is divided amongst ICE companies.
In 2005, 79.9% of the energy produced in Costa Rica was hydroelectric. Geothermal energy – which comes from trapping and using the earth’s heat – accounted for 14%, and wind energy, another 3.5%. Thermal power, from burning fossil fuels, increased from 1% in 2004 to 3.4% in 2005 (see separate article). Finally, 0.1% came from burning biomass, which is organic material that includes agricultural waste products such as spent sugarcane.
According to Tapia, fossil fuels are generally burned only to add energy to the national supply when water is low, usually during Costa Rica’s dry season, and hydroelectric output is insufficient to meet demand.
Costa Rica’s abundance of hydroelectric power is thanks to its heavy yearly rainfall and its many mountains. As water streams from the high forests to the oceans, it changes elevation – the key to producing hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric dams capitalize on water’s change in elevation by pouring it over a turbine. As the water falls, the turbine spins and electricity is produced.
Critics of hydroelectric projects, however, say that the process of damming a body of water has far-reaching effects on the environment and communities both upstream and downstream from the dam.
Among the effects, critics say, are climatic changes caused by the sudden apparition of a huge body of water (the reservoir created by the dam), the blockage of wildlife movement up and down the river and the retention of sediment that helps regulate the water flow below the dam. This sediment, when released, can also cause massive fish kills downstream, as happened with ICE’s Peñas Blancas project in the Northern Zone in 2003.
ICE has offered to pay $1 million to help compensate for the asphyxiation of thousands of fish in the Peñas Blancas and San Carlos rivers caused by sediment-filled water released Oct. 30, 2003 from the Peñas Blancas Hydroelectric Dam. Environmentalists say the incident caused “irreparable” damage (TT, Feb. 20, 2004).
Opponents also cite negative social impacts, such as disease resulting from the climatic changes, a scarcity of water downstream for fishing and other needs and the effects on small communities of a sudden influx of workers to build the dam. In addition, hydroelectric projects have been criticized as a form of privatizing water, taking it from nearby communities for the profit of corporate interests.
The process for creating geothermal energy, Costa Rica’s number-two power source, is similar to hydroelectric production. In geothermal plants, heat that comes from magma beneath the earth’s surface is used to boil water, which becomes steam, rising and turning a turbine. The steam is then cooled and returned to the earth as water.
A bill in the Legislative Assembly looks to facilitate geothermal production in Costa Rica by opening national parks to geothermal projects. According former Patriotic Bloc legislator Emilia Rodríguez, who sponsored the bill, geothermal energy is closely associated with volcanic activity and because most of Costa Rica’s volcanoes are in protected national parks, ICE is unable to access the energy.
“This is unfortunate because it is an energy that has a low environmental and economic cost,” said Rodríguez, according to the official government newspaper La Gaceta.
The opening of national parks to energy production, however, has proven itself controversial in the past. In the paralyzing protests in 2001 against a group of electricity privatization bills known as the ICE Combo (TT, March 31, 2001), one of the principal concerns for environmental groups was that it would open protected areas such as national parks to private geothermal and hydroelectric projects.
Mauricio Álvarez, of the Costa Rican Federation for Environmental Conservation (FECON), told The Tico Times that it sets a dangerous precedent at a time when there are other pressures to open the park system, such as a push to open protected waters to fishing, allow hydroelectric projects on park land and let private companies manage some parks.
“If (conservation) is really the goal of the national parks, opening them really isn’t important,” Álvarez said.
Álvarez suggests the country should not depend so much on just one source of energy, like hydroelectricity, and increase its use of other, alternative sources of energy, such as wind power.
Costa Rica produces more wind power than any other country in Latin America. Four different projects, all in Tilarán, in north-central Costa Rica, produce 66.4 MW of energy for the national system.
Three of those projects are private initiatives, and the 50 MW project that is part of ICE’s Expansion Plan would also be private. ICE also uses solar energy, but, as Tapia explained, it is not part of the national power grid. In cases where homes or communities are too remote to connect to the national grid, and in “populations where there are few economic resources,” ICE installs solar panels for local energy consumption.
However, ICE and the National Power and Light Company (CNFL) could be moving toward a system that would allow private individuals to generate electricity, both solar and wind energy, and sell it to the power company, according a statement from Consultores en Energía Consenergy, a renewable energy consultation firm that recently held a conference on the topic and could provide the equipment for the project.
“There is definitely the intention,” Miguel Iglesias, commercial assistant manager for Consenergy, told The Tico Times.
“But it is still early. (ICE and CNFL) are in the pre-feasibility phase.”
Like many in the environmental movement, Álvarez says Costa Rica needs to look beyond simply creating more power plants to keep up with growing demand. “With the current model of growth, there are not many sustainable ways – so as not to say there is no sustainable way – to create this amount of energy for unlimited necessities,” Álvarez said. “They can exploit all the rivers and they can exploit all the sources (of energy) there are, but it will never be enough.”
Instead, he said, there needs to be a focus on lowering the demand of energy. One way, Álvarez said, is to make the cost of energy to the consumer reflect its true cost. According to Álvarez, large companies such as Intel should be charged more for their heavy usage of energy, instead of being charged much less as a way to bring investment into the country. The current price of electricity, he says, does not reflect its true cost, such as the environmental damages caused by its production.
Consumers should also pay more, he added, but qualified that by saying the prices should reflect a solidarity with lower classes, allowing for lower prices for those who truly can’t afford it.