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Costa Rica Relies on Array of Energy Sources

First in a seven-part series on Energy in Costa Rica


Sometimes the sources for Costa Rica’s energy generation can be as ephemeral as a rainy season’s sunny morning.

Because the majority of Costa Rica’s electricity comes from natural, renewable sources, determining which renewable source will produce the most energy in a given year depends heavily on the weather.

Still, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) is able to generate more than 90 percent of the country’s annual electricity by harnessing energy from a combination of renewable energy sources, such as biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal and wind.

Electricity needs not met by these renewable sources are satisfied through thermal energy, which involves burning oil to generate heat. But the amount of thermal energy used rarely exceeds 10 percent of the yearly gross electricity production.

In 2007, dry weather forced ICE to rely on thermal energy for 8 percent of the country’s electrical needs. But in 2008, a year that set rainfall records for Costa Rica, ICE generated less than two percent of the nation’s electricity from burning fossil fuels.

Costa Rica has no coal-fired power plant, which is the world’s leading source of energy – producing approximately 40 percent of the world’s power. Coal-fired plants also produce the lion’s share of the world’s CO2 emissions, which most experts agree is the principal contributor to human-induced global warming.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that coal will remain the world’s main source of energy until 2030, climbing to as high as 44 percent of worldwide energy production by 2015.

But Costa Rica appears to be sufficiently equipped to buck the global trend.

“We have always had the ideology of taking advantage of as many renewable sources as we can,” said Javier Orozco, director of integral expansion and electrical planning for ICE. “The idea is to substitute what you can’t create from renewable sources with thermal, not the other way around.”

Despite increasing demand for electricity, Orozco said ICE has no plans to search for or invest in “dirty sources” of energy, such as coal. Instead, it appears ICE is seeking to do just the opposite.

On May 25, 2009, the Inter-American Development Bank approved a loan of $250 million to upgrade ICE’s electrical system.

Orozco said the majority of the money will be used to improve hydroelectric plants that already are operating.

The loan money is not yet available, and ICE has not decided how much money will be designated to certain projects, but Orozco said that improvements to the Rio Macho power plant are among the top priorities.

The Rio Macho plant, one of Costa Rica’s oldest, has not received substantial updates in almost 10 years.

Plans also include connecting remote communities that don’t have electricity to the grid. According to ICE statistics, 98.6 percent of the country has access to stable electricity, but Orozco says ICE won’t be satisfied “until everyone has electricity.”

But even though ICE has demonstrated the ability to substitute one renewable source for another when necessary, reliance on Mother Nature has proven troublesome at times.

In April 2007, the Costa Rican government declared a state of emergency as blackouts swept across the country and darkened thousands of homes. Insufficient rainfall left the nation’s hydroelectric reservoirs without enough water to power buildings in the Central Valley.

Orozco admitted that hydroelectric plants have their limits, but he noted that in a country that sees over 200 inches of rain per year, hydroelectric power is one of the best renewable options.

Daniel Friedlander, a researcher with Ener-G, a Costa Rican energy efficiency company, said that while renewables provide a clean outlet for energy production, they can be problematic. The best way to ensure stable production, he said, is with diversification and efficiency.

“If there’s no wind, there’s no wind energy. If there’s no rain, there’s not hydro energy,” he said. “There needs to be a healthy mix of all of them if it’s going to work.”

According to Orozco, a fortunate complementarity between wind and hydro energy exists in Costa Rica. In the dry season, when rain is scarce, winds are strongest, meaning that wind generated energy can compensate for a decrease in hydro energy production.

Part of the solution to Costa Rica’s wet and dry energy problems could be to invest more in geothermal energy.

María Martínez, a vulcanologist at the National University (UNA) said that since geothermal “does not depend on the weather, it is one of the more consistent forms of renewable energy production” and can “operate year around regardless of rain conditions.”

A recent study by ICE estimates that Costa Rica has the capacity to produce 800 megawatts of geothermal energy but has never produced more than 200 megawatts.

The majority of the country’s geothermal energy is most easily reached in national parks around volcanoes, where it is illegal to build energy plants.

A bill that would open up the parks to energy exploration is making its way through the Legislative Assembly, but environmentalists believe the process could cause too much disruption to the wildlife in the parks.

Friedlander said he supports the exploration of more renewable sources to meet energy demands, he warned that energy loss during distribution often can go overlooked.

By most official estimates, approximately 30 percent of generated electricity is lost between the plant and the destination. Friedlander said this loss can be curbed by building numerous smaller plants close to the communities they will serve.

By doing so, Friedlander said, that energy can be generated and used more efficiently.

“Renewable energy is great, but if it’s not paired with energy efficiency it won’t reach it’s potential,” Friedlander said. “A lot can be done by using more efficient ideas and equipment.”

Next week: Energy conservation.




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