Green energy beacons continue to pop up around the world — from a small Scandinavian island to a Japanese resort town to other first-world enclaves such as Burlington, Vermont. But one source of lessons and inspiration in the transition to renewable energy may come as a bit of a surprise: a developing Central American country.
As nearly 200 nations pledged to wean themselves off climate-disrupting fossil fuels earlier this month in Paris, Costa Rica was already well on its way — proving, according to some experts, that major moves to stave off catastrophic climate change were indeed possible and practical.
Nearly all of the energy produced in Costa Rica during 2015 came from renewable sources — 99 percent as of Dec. 17 — including 285 days during which the small Central American country completely eschewed fossil fuels in its energy generation, according to official data. (The nation’s roads, like much of the world, are still filled with fossil-fuel-guzzling vehicles.)
Back in March, the nation broke a world record for the longest streak of relying solely on renewable energy for electricity: 75 days. Among the effects were lower electricity prices for Costa Rican residents.
“The newly adopted Paris climate agreement has sent a powerful signal: the world will need to leave fossil fuels behind if we are to achieve climate security this century,” Monica Araya, executive director at Nivela, a Costa Rica-based environmental group, told The Huffington Post in an email. “Costa Rica is well positioned to be a trail blazer in this clean-energy transition.”
Andrea Watson, section manager for strategy and implementation at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, agreed that this is “absolutely a signal” of the world’s potential to head down the right path.
She also noted that Costa Rica’s efforts illustrate one of the key components included in the Paris accord: “differentiated responsibilities” based on countries’ unique capabilities and circumstances. It ended up a crucial point, helping bring all 195 nations at the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21, on board.
“The idea out of the agreement wasn’t that everyone will cut their emissions by this much, or that everyone must convert to renewable energy,” said Watson. “But rather, every country will take an individualized approach to ambitious renewable energy goals — one that works best for them and their development goals.”
“The idea is that there is a path,” she added. “Costa Rica has demonstrated that.”
Costa Rica’s individualized approach began decades ago with investments in its most abundant sources of renewable power. A major river system and heavy rainfall meant hydroelectricity could provide a solid base of energy generation. Geothermal and, increasingly, wind are also now significant in their mix.
Since rivers tend to continuously flow, hydropower is generally among the more predictable renewable sources. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, of course. Yet climate change itself may be compromising hydropower’s reliability due to more extreme fluctuations between floods and droughts. In nearby nations, such as Chile, melting glaciers also threaten future hydroelectric power generation.
“Most countries in Central and South America are still growing their use of electricity,” said Gabriel Goldschmidt, regional head of infrastructure for Latin America and Caribbean at the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank.
So as these nations move along the development continuum, he added, they face difficult decisions. Expanding hydroelectricity to keep up with demand and to compensate for years when water flows are low, for example, could damage the environment and impact wildlife. “Simple spots to put sizable hydros have already been filled,” added Goldschmidt. “The next ones are more difficult from environmental and cost perspectives.”
Incorporating other sources of renewable energy is critical. Only in the last few years have options such as wind and solar become cost-effective. But as Costa Rica and other nations, including the U.S., continue to revisit their plans to cut carbon emissions — per the Paris climate agreement — they will have a wider array of alternatives thanks to technology innovations including energy storage, cheaper price tags on renewables, and now the extra push from Paris.
Much like hydropower in Costa Rica, wind and solar show significant potential in the U.S. — especially in the middle and southern states. “You could take a corner of Utah and Nevada and power the entire United States with solar power,” Tesla’s Elon Musk was quoted as saying during a conference last week.
“The future looks very promising,” said Goldschmidt.
Of course, while achieving nearly fossil-fuel-free electricity generation, Costa Rica still uses a fair amount of dirty energy. Their cars and trucks largely run on petroleum, of course. That’s the next challenge, noted Araya.
“The government has pledged to build an electric train which will be integrated with public buses. There is also a proposal to start replacing oil-powered cars with electric cars as part of a new bill in congress that aims to offer consumer incentives to lower the prices of these cars,” she said. “This would have multiple benefits including better air quality.”
Clean air, according to a 2014 opinion poll, is Costa Ricans’ No. 1 environmental priority. The same poll revealed that a majority of Costa Ricans also support the development of renewable energy projects such as wind, geothermal and hydropower.
In fact, opposition to wind power is lower in Costa Rica compared to developed nations, perhaps because the towering turbines, suggested Araya, are “a symbol of modernization.”
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