ECPA in action: Going Even Greener in Costa Rica

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Costa Rica—the latest country to join the Steering Committee of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA)—has set a global example on renewable energy. In 2016, for the second year in a row, it generated more than 98 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. As enviable as that feat may be, it hardly means the country’s energy problems have been solved, a Costa Rican energy official explained in an interview.

“Our biggest challenge is in the transportation sector,” said Laura Lizano, Energy Sector Director in Costa Rica’s Ministry of the Environment and Energy. In the absence of good public transportation alternatives, Lizano said, more and more Costa Ricans have bought vehicles in recent years, leading to clogged roads in San José and throughout the Central Valley.

“We experience terrible traffic chaos on a daily basis,” Lizano said. “It takes some people two hours to get to work.”

All those fuel-thirsty vehicles mean that—despite its green electricity grid—Costa Rica relies on fossil fuels to cover two thirds of its overall energy needs. Transportation accounts for the vast majority of consumption of petroleum products, 82 percent in 2015.

The country is working on several fronts to decrease dependence on fossil fuels, guided by the VII National Energy Plan 2015-2030—a roadmap for achieving “sustainable energy with a low level of emissions.” The plan, which lays out broad goals and specific objectives, was developed through a process that involved months of public consultations. It was approved and signed in September 2015 by Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera and the Minister of Environment and Energy, Edgar Gutiérrez Espeleta.

Public transportation is identified as a major priority in the National Energy Plan, which notes that many people have stopped riding buses because of deteriorating vehicles, safety concerns, a lack of information for potential users, and the fact that bus travel tends to be slow and inefficient. The number of automobiles has doubled in the last two decades—from 132 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 263 in 2014—and the number of motorcycles has tripled.

The plan lays out several steps to restructure and modernize public transportation, including a complete redesign of the bus system to streamline and integrate routes and, eventually, the introduction of electric trains for some rapid transit.

Another major transportation goal is to rely more on cleaner fuels, including ethanol and other biofuels, as well as liquefied natural gas. The plan also looks at the need to update regulations and laws, for example to restrict imports of older, fuel-guzzling vehicles.

Costa Rica is also beginning to encourage the use of electric cars. The country will soon receive a donation from Japan to buy several dozen such automobiles for government ministry fleets—a good first step “so people can start to see electric vehicles on the road,” Lizano said.

The country’s tax structure already favors the purchase of electric vehicles, and the government is working with a consultant to identify other steps it needs to take, such as making charging stations widely available. Electric transportation is “a good option for Costa Rica, since practically all the electricity is produced based on renewable sources,” Lizano said.

According to the national public electric utility—the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE)—98.2 percent of the electricity produced in 2016 came from renewable sources. (In 2015, the figure was even higher: 98.99 percent.) Hydroelectricity led the way, accounting for more than 74 percent of output in 2016, followed by geothermal, at more than 12 percent.

The country currently has plenty of hydropower capacity—it inaugurated the new, 305.5 MW Reventazón hydroelectric plant last year—but output is always susceptible to changing rainfall patterns, so it’s important to increase diversification, Lizano said.

Costa Rica’s abundance of volcanoes makes geothermal energy an attractive, reliable option, and several projects are being planned for the short and medium term to expand supply, she said. Wind is another important source, providing more than 10 percent of the electricity generated in 2016. By contrast, biomass and solar energy together still account for less than 1 percent of the electricity produced.

Lizano said it’s important to keep integrating different types of renewable energy into the grid to meet growing demand and ensure sufficient backup supply. It’s also important to emphasize energy efficiency, she said.

“The cheapest energy is what we don’t even have to produce,” Lizano said.

The VII National Energy Plan identifies the need for publicity campaigns and education to encourage efficiency, promote the use of public transportation, and further other goals to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Costa Rica may have an advantage over some countries in this regard, as it has a long history of environmental awareness; for example, as far back as 1949, when its electric utility was established, it has emphasized renewable energy.

As Laura Lizano put it, the need to protect the environment “lies deep in our consciousness.”