Costa Rica: a model of renewable energy for the future?

Costa Rica is famous for its waterfalls and stunning beaches, now it is also a world leader in renewable energy use. The Costa Rican government announced in March that it had gone 75 days using only renewable resources for electricity generation, this accomplishment was mostly due to the extensive hydropower network.

Costa Rica isn’t the only country to run on renewables: Iceland also generates 100% of its electricity through hydro and geothermal energy, in part due to the numerous volcanoes.
Compared to other countries such as the USA who use only 13% of renewable energy to generate electricity, the achievements of Costa Rica seem impressive. Unfortunately it is unlikely that it will last.

A period of unusually heavy rain meant that there was enough water in the dams to generate most of the country’s electricity needs using hydropower. The economic benefits of the surge in green electricity are huge with electricity prices predicted to drop up to 15% this month.

Hydroelectric power relies on consistent rainfall and, until a few months ago, the country was suffering from one of the worst droughts for 50 years. The drought meant that it was necessary to burn fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Worse still, the unpredictable rain patterns are set to worsen in the future due to climate change.
Costa Rica has a policy goal for carbon neutrality by 2021, and if it meets the target it could become the first carbon neutral country in the world. With a population of 4.8 million and a booming tourism industry the biggest hurdle to meeting the carbon neutrality to goal is the reliance on petroleum for transport. In 2014 emissions from vehicles contributed to 70% of Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas inventory. In most years Costa Rica generates around 90% of its electricity without fossil fuels by using a mix of geothermal, hydroelectric, wind and solar power.

Natural resources make it more suited for renewable energy generation, making it more difficult for more industrialised nations to follow in their footsteps. Even if it were possible to power the world’s biggest countries with renewable energy it would cause significant destruction with biodiversity and habitat loss and the displacement of communities.

We are yet to see how long Costa Rica can run without fossil fuels but Monica Araya, executive director of Nivela, a Costa Rica-based climate change think tank is optimistic, saying “we don’t want this be a 75-day story, we want this to be a 365-day story”


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November 2021
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