Sixth in a Seven-Part Series On Energy in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s trade winds roll in from the Caribbean coast, sweep through the Central Valley and climb the hills on the western side of the country’s northern plains. The currents meet the ridge of this western mountain range between the Arenal volcano and the Nicaraguan border, accelerate and rush out to the Pacific Ocean.
It is along this ridge in the cantón of Tilarán, in the province of Guanacaste, where the country’s winds are the strongest and most consistent. They can clock up to 180 kilometers per hour (111.85 mph), according to a recent issue of the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And, naturally, most of Costa Rica’s grid-used wind energy is generated in this area.
Of the nation’s four large-scale wind farms, three are located along the Tilirán brink.
Only one of these plants – the Tejona Wind Power Project, built with financial assistance from the Dutch government – is under the control of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the government-controlled electricity monopoly.
Jay Gallegos, general manager of Mesoamerica Energy, a private company that built Costa Rica’s first large-scale wind farm, calls this gusty stretch of landscape Costa Rica’s “wind energy sweet spot.”
These four plants generate up to 70 million watts – or megawatts – of electricity at peak output and account for approximately three percent of the production of electricity in Costa Rica, according to the 2007 State of the Nation report.
But wind energy’s greatest asset in Costa Rica is its natural harmony with hydroelectric energy.
Hydroelectric plants are by far the nation’s largest producers of electricity. They produce close to 80 percent of the electricity the country consumes annually. But in the dry season (December to May), water levels behind dams drop, making hydroelectric energy less relaible. Fortunately, the dry months are also the windiest.
“This is why it’s so important, when you use renewable sources, to have a mix,” said Javier Orozco, director of integral expansion and electrical planning for ICE. “Wind and hydroelectric energy sources are not constant and neither (of those sources) will generate all the electricity we need, but they compliment each other very well.”
Stephen Yurica, a Costa Rican wind energy developer based in Tilarán, has been working toward building a wind farm in the nearby community of Los Angeles for the past seven years.
“The combination of wind and hydroelectric (energy) in this country is perfect,” Yurica said. “You don’t need any thermal energy.”
Yurica recently finalized the price for the energy his project will produce with Public Service Regulatory Authority (ARESEP), and he hopes to begin construction of this project within the next two years. The Tilawind Power Project, as it is called, would generate up to 20 megawatts of electricity.
Because of Costa Rica’s laws regarding the private generation of power, privately owned wind power plants cannot exceed 20 megawatts of output unless they are built under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) agreement with ICE.
Under a BOT agreement, a private company may build a wind farm of any size but then it must transfer ownership of the plant to ICE after 20 years of operation.
Orozco said that the idea behind the law is to help the country maintain steady electrical production. Orozco reasoned that too many large companies, all with different equipment and feed-in systems, would make it difficult for maintenance crews to tend to a large-scale blackout.
But plant managers agree that a 20-megawatt farm is less than an ideal for overall efficiency.
“It’s not good for economy of scale,” Gallegos said. “You need to build bigger projects to dilute your costs.”
According from the American Wind Energy Association, construction of a wind farm can cost around $2 million per megawatt.
“They aren’t doing enough to promote wind energy in this country,” Gallegos said. “If you want a project that’s bigger than 20 megawatts, you have to buy the land, build the project and then hand the keys to ICE. Who is going to do that?”
Although it may seem to some like an unattractive venture, Juwi, a German energy company, is in the process of installing 50 megawatts of wind power in Miravalles, Guanacaste, under a BOT agreement with ICE. The company already has installed turbines with a generating capacity of 25 megawatts there, confident that the sale of the energy it produces will provide a return on its investment.
ICE is considering proposing legislation that would update the country’s private generation law and perhaps allow the construction of larger, private wind power plants, but so far these plans have not received much attention from ICE, the administration or legislators.
But for now, Cost Rica’s few wind turbines bear the standard of an industry that, in this country at least, has been slow to turn, despite favorable natural conditions. “Wind is a great source for energy. We want to continue exploring it as an option and working to install more plants,” Orozco said. “But we can’t forget that it’s not the only renewable source. It has its limits. It’s intermittent. We need to have a mix.”