Tiny Costa Rica sets Big Record for Renewal Energy

Last month, I travelled to the small Central American country of Costa Rica. Among other things, I marvelled at the lush forests, pristine beaches, and exotic wildlife. But perhaps the most admirable feature of Costa Rica is its small carbon footprint. According to sources, the country used only renewable energy to generate electricity for the first 75 days of 2015—a new world record! It also plans to produce 97% of its electricity from renewables this year.

Costa Rica’s strong “eco-friendly” spirit has motivated the transition to renewable energy. Polls suggest that approximately 80% of Costa Ricans believe in climate change, 87% support wind power plants, and 77% support geothermal plants. Meanwhile, “less than a quarter support the further use of oil”. Recent economic realities have provided added impetus. High oil prices from 2011-2014, and the bankruptcy of nearby oil exporter Venezuela, confirmed the need to move away from fossil fuels.

Fortunately, several factors have facilitated Costa Rica’s transition to clean energy. First, Costa Rica’s high tropical rainfall and mountainous interior are “well suited for hydropower”, which supplies 80% of the country’s electricity. This spring, “unusually heavy rainfall bolstered water reservoirs enough to produce ample power for the whole country”. Costa Rica also boasts a string of active volcanoes. The resulting geothermal energy accounts for 15% of the country’s electricity mix.

Of further note, Costa Rica has a “low heavy industrial base”. Instead, the country relies largely on “agriculture and tourism—particularly eco-tourism”. Costa Rica also has a low population of 4.8 million people, approximately equivalent to Alabama.

But despite these factors, the transition is not yet complete. The Rich Coast still relies heavily on fossil fuels for transportation. In fact, “vehicles consume a whopping 70% of all petroleum consumed in Costa Rica and account for 40% of the country’s total carbon emissions”. Experts blame aging vehicles, high-polluting engines, and a failed electric bus program.

Moreover, since most renewable sources are weather dependent, Costa Rica’s clean energy supply sometimes falls short. In these instances, utilities resort to burning dirty bunker fuel. (Regrettably, climate specialists expect changing rain patterns will make hydropower even less reliable).

Still, Costa Rica’s progress is an inspiration to other states. So too are the achievements of Denmark (40% wind energy), Iceland (85% geothermal energy and hydropower), and Sweden, Bulgaria, and Estonia, which have met their energy goals for 2020. Highlighting these success stories is critical in the lead-up to the UN’s 2015 climate change conference, which aims “to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate”. In the words of Monica Araya, Executive Director of climate change think-tank Nivela, “It’s easier in the U.S. and elsewhere to move if [they] see others moving.”

To learn more about renewal energy, please contact  ACORE, the Foundation for Renewable Energy and the Environment, or our partners, Solar Sonoma County and Clean Air Cool Planet.