Renewable Controversy

On August 9, 1884, San José, Costa Rica became the first city in Latin America with a street illuminated by streetlights, a mere two years after New York City. Since then, more sophisticated technology, such as nuclear power plants, have been implemented. However, despite these advancements, there has been a lack of major innovation in the design of Costa Rica’s electricity grid. But recent factors such as breakthroughs in renewable forms of energy, plug-in electric vehicles, and smart phone technology, along with increased pressure to ease oil-dependence, are pushing many countries, including Costa Rica, toward making changes in the electricity grid.

Costa Rica is facing a very interesting challenge when it comes to energy generation. Currently, 90% of electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from renewable forms, including water, wind, geothermal, and biomass. This serves close to 99.5% of the population. By 2021, the country aims to reach 100% service coverage using 100% renewable forms of energy to become completely carbon neutral. Yet, the final 10% is often the hardest, and Costa Rica still has a lot of work to do. It faces two interesting challenges in scaling up to 100% renewable energy: environmental and cultural.

Environmentally, Costa Rica has been blessed with rich natural resources. With volcanic mountain ranges and both the Pacific and the Caribbean watersheds, Costa Rica has geothermal and hydrologic energy in addition to areas of extreme sun exposure and high wind power. However, 26.9% of the land mass of the country is designated as a protected area, part of which contains geothermal-rich areas in the Central Valley and Guanacaste. Legislators have banned the exploitation of geothermal in these protected areas, favoring instead oil-fueled hydrocarbon power generation in other areas, which emits pollutants and carbon dioxide and contributes to environmental degradation. This creates an interesting debate where both sides are arguing in favor of the environment. It ultimately boils down to which practice is more damaging: oil-fueled hydrocarbon generation that emits greenhouse gases or geothermal generation that requires damaging protected national parks.

In 1994, 20% of electricity generated in Costa Rica came from oil-fueled hydrocarbon generation. This dropped sharply by 2002, down to only 2%, with the construction of a Geothermal Plant in Maravalles, along with other wind-based generation sites. Yet with increased electricity demand, Costa Rica had to look to oil-fueled hydrocarbon generation again in the past decade, increasing non-renewable energy generation to the current level of 10%. The Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE, its Spanish abbreviation) and the executive branch of the government have been pushing for years to conduct research and increase usage of geothermal power. However, favoring its protected areas, the congress (Asamblea Legislativa) has not approved entrance into the geothermal-rich areas. Even though the plant would only require a small amount of land, exploiting a natural resource in any way in a protected area means moving Costa Rica from its path of meeting its global conservation goals set in 1995 during the U.N.’s Convention of Biological Diversity. With both sides arguing in the name of sustainability, making a decision that weighs the costs and benefits of both is critical for ensuring short and long-term environmental and economic sustainability in Costa Rica.

Culturally, parts of Costa Rica have a unique indigenous heritage. The Costa Rican Institute of Electricity has drafted a dam construction plan called El Diquís Hydroelectric Project, which is projected to become the largest dam in Central America with a capacity of 631 megawatts, delivering electricity to over one million consumers. However, if carried out according to plan, this project will mean a loss of 658 hectares of land for the indigenous Teribe people of Costa Rica. Additionally, the creation of a reservoir and the influx of construction and maintenance staff into the area would threaten the Teribe people’s way of life, including lands and vegetation considered sacred to their culture. While Costa Rica has endorsed the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and is party to a number of international conventions that guarantee indigenous rights, the ICE has failed to fully incorporate the Teribe people in the planning of this project. ICE has historically invested largely in hydroelectricity plants in order to produce energy sustainably. Yet in this cultural clash, Costa Rica is forced to try to balance the preservation of indigenous cultures and environmental values with sustainable development. Following a formal lawsuit filed by the Teribe Indigenous Community in March 2011 and a letter from the U.N. to the government of Costa Rica highlighting these concerns, the El Diquís Hydroelectric Project has been slowed down and is still in its planning stage.

The fight for renewable energy and sustainable development is not black and white and Costa Rica is hardly alone in this struggle. The United States must also determine how to solve the problem of providing energy without producing more environmentally damaging byproducts. Unfortunately, the opposing sides in this fight are no longer clear. It is no longer a fight between energy companies and the environmental lobby. It is instead a delicate balance that must be paired with sensible tradeoffs to ensure long-term environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability.


Image Credit: Equesgo16 via Wikimedia Commons


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