As of March 16 this year, the entire nation of Costa Rica had been powered by renewable sources. That’s a nation of almost 5 million people, which hasn’t burnt any fossil fuels in the first quarter of 2015, yet still kept the lights on. So how did they do it?
The bad news is they haven’t got amazing fuel-cell technology that will transform the energy industry. The good news is, the fuel they’re using has been around since the dawn of time: water.
According to a release from the nationally owned Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) the 75 oil-free days came as a result of their four primary hydroelectric dams being fuller than anticipated due to heavier than normal rainfall.
The hydroelectricity was topped up with power from geothermal, wind, biomass and solar sources for a completely renewable first quarter.
It’s a mighty impressive stat, made all the more impressive by the fact it has led to national energy prices dropping by 12 per cent, with estimates showing that prices will continue to trend downward in the second quarter.
The Central American nation takes renewable energy very seriously, having spent an estimated $US958 million on a geothermal project to harness the power of the nation’s volcanoes.
The problem with hydro
This isn’t an attempt to belittle what’s an amazing achievement from a relatively poor country – hell, 100 per cent renewable energy would be impressive from a wealthy country – but hydroelectricity isn’t without its problems.
The primary issue is that damming an area – especially an area large enough to produce electricity for a significant percentage of a national population – destroys habitats and wildlife.
Take for instance the Costa Rican dam Arenal, the first reservoir mentioned in the ICE release. To go from being a lake to a hydroelectric dam in the 1970s, Arenal trebled in size to a surface area of 85.5 square kilometres. This meant all the residents of the town of Arenal were forced to move, and the town now lies in a watery grave.
That’s to say nothing of the thousands of animals which would have been killed by the damming, including native species such as jaguars, tapirs, and myriad birds.
Furthermore, once the area is dammed, landscapes and populations – both human and animal – downriver can be significantly altered due to the reduced water flow.
Completed in 1974, Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme is one of the most bold and grand engineering feats in Australian history. Yet almost a quarter of a century later an inquiry was launched into the scheme’s affect on the Snowy River itself, which was decimated by the scheme, with estimations as little as one per cent of the original flow was now heading downriver.
The flipside to both of these arguments is that the Snowy Mountains Scheme produces an estimated 74 per cent of NSW’s total renewable energy, while Arenal produces an estimated 12 per cent of Costa Rica’s total power. Both with minimal carbon footprint, using a resource which literally falls from the sky.