By Derek Brody
Costa Rica is a Central American nation known primarily for its lush rainforests and booming tourism industry, but this year it is attempting to make another claim to notoriety as the first country to last an entire year running on only green energy.
The country has become a pioneer in renewable energy, and has spent the last 5 months subsisting solely on green energy sources, rather than fossil fuel. Twenty fifteen was a landmark year in the push for green energy in Costa Rica, as the country spent 285 days powered entirely by renewable energy sources according to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, also referred to as ICE. The country has not been powered by fossil fuels since June 17 of this year, meaning they are almost halfway to their goal of an entire 12-month cycle. In fact, ICE announced in April that they “now consider fossil fuels a backup energy generation source.”
In the place of fossil fuels, Costa Rica uses a mixture of hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar energy. Hydropower provides the majority of their energy, greater than 80%, with geothermal plants providing 12.6%, wind turbines providing 7.1%, and solar energy providing 0.01%. The country has been able to utilize its climate and terrain, using its large river system and heavy tropical rainfalls to create large amounts of hydropower. The nation has been lucky in 2016 because of the heavy rainfalls near the country’s four hydroelectric power facilities. Carlos Manuel Obregon, the executive president of ICE, noted that Costa Rica will soon turn on its Reventazon hydroelectric project, which is massive in size and scope. According to the Tico Times, the dam’s five turbines will have a generating capacity of 305.5 megawatts, or enough power for an estimated 525,000 homes.
Costa Rica is also not alone in its quest to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and a number of European countries have been reasonably successful in their attempts to make greater use of green energy sources. Sweden, for example, draws approximately half of its power from renewable sources, as Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced that the country will work toward becoming the “first fossil fuel-free” nation in the world in a speech to the UN General Assembly earlier this year. In September, his government announced it would allocate 4.5 billion kronor (approximately $521 million) to green infrastructure, funding projects like the production of more solar panels, wind turbines, and a cleaner public transport and energy grid.
Denmark has also made major steps toward reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and currently ranks as the world leader in energy sourced from wind. In fact, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s electricity came from its wind turbines in 2014. Even Portugal, a nation not well-known for its commitment to renewable energy, ran for 107 straight days without using any fossil fuel-based sources earlier this year.
That is not to say, however, that Costa Rica’s success comes without challenges and obstacles. In fact, it can be argued that their overwhelming reliance on hydropower is actually harmful to the environment, according to Gary Wockner of “Save the Colorado.” In August, Wockner warned against the dangers of hydropower when he said, “Hydropower has been called a ‘methane factory’ and ‘methane bomb’ that is just beginning to rear its ugly head as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that have so-far been unaccounted for in climate change discussions and analysis.” Additionally, rainfall can be fickle at times and long periods of drought result in countries having to resort back to the use of fossil fuels.
It is also incorrect to assume that Costa Rica’s success is easily transferrable to other countries. The country has only 4.9 million inhabitants, and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated they used about 10,713 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2015. In contrast, the United States generated about 373 times more electricity in 2015, with roughly 4 million gigawatt-hours of total generation.
Recent actions taken by the United States, however, suggest that the U.S. is not as committed to green energy as it could be. In mid-August, the state of Wyoming declared that the state itself owns the wind. This measure, passed by the state legislature, allows the state to increase taxes on energy produced by wind turbines from $1 per megawatt hour to $12 per megawatt hour. This legislation has been criticized for its deleterious effects. Matt Agorist of the Free Thought Process noted that, “This move by the state is not in the interest of the people, nor it is even in the interest of raising funds for the government. In the four years that it’s been law, the state has only raised $15 million from taxing the wind. This move is purely retaliatory and meant to stifle new businesses who threaten the dinosaur coal and fossil fuel industry’s grip on energy production.”
Nevada also passed legislation designed to suppress green energy production, hiking its tax on solar power by 40 percent in January of this year. To make matters worse, the tax increase was applied retroactively, effectively squashing investments in the growing solar industry. Former SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive expressed his displeasure at the increase, saying, “It will destroy the rooftop solar industry in one of the states with the most sunshine. There is so much wrong with the decision. The one beneficiary of this decision would be NV Energy, whose monopoly will have been protected.”
Despite the challenges put forth by certain state legislatures, the planet as a whole has made large strides away from dependence on fossil fuels and toward a more sustainable future. Leading the charge, perhaps unexpectedly, is a tiny Central American country who may just make history this year.