At 2,400 meters above sea level on the summit of Montecristo, northwest of Costa Rica, dozens of wind turbines crack the air in a throbbing buzz. Below, Lake Arenal extends to infinity in the valley. In the distance, three volcanoes stand in the middle of lush vegetation. This natural setting is at the heart of the clean energy mix of this small country of five million inhabitants who dreams of becoming the first CO2 neutral nation by 2021.
“From January to October, we produced 98.7% of our electricity from renewable energy,” says Elbert Duran, communications director of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).
Next year, the country plans to reach 100% green electricity. At the wheel of his 4 × 4 (not electric, him), Mr. Duran runs along Lake Arenal and the dam. With a storage capacity of 2.5 billion cubic meters, it is the largest artificial water supply in Central America. The road is winding. Forests and pastures decline the whole range of greens.
Diversify clean energy production
Below, three hydroelectric plants, cascading over 1,500 meters of elevation gain, have a capacity of more than 360 megawatts (MW). “Hydropower is the country’s primary source of electricity, located in a very rainy tropical area,” says Duran. But global warming and the weather phenomenon of El Niño threaten the regularity of the rains. To avoid the use of polluting fossil fuels, ICE had to diversify its clean energy production. “
The 4 × 4 crosses the city of Tilaran, whose name comes from the word tilawa, which means in Indian language, “the place of rain and wind”. In the heights, squalls reach more than 100 km / h. “Since the 1980s, the country has been a pioneer in Latin America in wind energy research. Costa Rica has nine wind farms and plans to build eight more by 2017. Wind is the third source of electrical energy, after the steam of the bowels of the earth.
70 km northwest of Tilaran, enormous columns of white smoke escape from the five plants of the Miravalles geothermal field, scattered on the wooded slopes of the eponymous volcano. A slight smell of sulfur hovers over this huge site of 42 km of pipes that connect the turbines to 25 production wells, drilled at more than 1,600 meters deep. “Hot water and steam generate 163.5 MW of electricity,” says Eddy Sanchez, director of the ICE’s geothermal resource center.
Just next to the Miravalles III plant, 4,300 photovoltaic panels glitter in the sun. On 22 000 m2, their capacity is 1 MW. “This experimental plant was offered to us by the Japanese government,” says Sanchez. Solar, hydro, wind, geothermal … The plants are all connected to the Energy Control Center (Cence), located in San José, the capital.
This strategic location manages the national electricity grid. Facing giant screens, its director, Salvador Lopez, plays the conductors. “It’s about combining our different clean energy sources to ensure the stability of the system without the use of fossil fuels. The energy mix of the ECI is becoming greener. In 2014, thermal power stations supplied 10.4% of the country’s electricity needs. They will not provide any more in 2016 provided the ICE wins its bet.
A challenge of weight during the dry season: “The water, the sun and the wind are unstable resources that vary according to the weather. With more than 100 volcanoes, five of which are active, geothermal energy is a much more stable option, “says Lopez. The ICE has launched the project of a seventh geothermal power plant, planned in 2019 on the flanks of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, in the north-west of the country. The geothermal potential of the country remains limited to 850 megawatts, according to the ICE. Not to mention that the cost of electricity produced from renewable energy is still much more expensive than from fossil fuels.
The electric mix of Costa Rica
From January to October 2015: 98.7% of the electricity was produced from renewable sources, including 74.6% hydroelectric, 12.9% geothermal, 10.3% wind, 0.89% biomass, 0 , 01% solar and 1.3% fossil fuels (Source: ICE)
Forecast 2016 : 100% of electricity produced from renewable energies.
Total installed capacity : 2,885 MW
Maximum demand for electricity : 1,632 MW
For Gilberto de la Cruz, director of planning at ICE headquarters in San José, “our ecological success is the result of pioneering policies put in place long before climate change became a global concern”. In 1949, President José Figueres Ferrer created the ICE by nationalizing the production and distribution of electricity. A year earlier, the one that Costa Ricans affectionately nicknamed Don Pepe demilitarized the country for the benefit of education and the social security system. This choice will be worth in Costa Rica its nickname of “Switzerland of Latin America”. “A country where the population is informed and aware of environmental issues,” said de la Cruz.
In the 1990s, laws opened the electricity market to private companies. “Their participation is limited to 30% of the production capacity in a market that remains regulated by the ICE, at the head of a quasi-monopoly,” he explains. Balance: 99.4% of households are connected to the national network. “The country has the best electricity coverage in Latin America with Uruguay,” claims La Cruz.
Difficult balance between green electricity and respect for the environment
What will enable the country to become carbon neutral soon? “Far from it, says Monica Araya, leader of Nivela, center of studies on climate change. Clean electricity does not mean clean energy mix. Electricity accounts for only a quarter of the country’s energy consumption. The rest comes from polluting fossil fuels. Transportation consumes nearly 60% of the energy produced. From 1980 to 2013, the car fleet went from 180,000 to 1.3 million vehicles. In the late afternoon, monster traffic jams form in the streets of San José. “The public transport is deplorable”, plague Ms. Araya. To redress the bar, the government is betting on a project to build an electric train in the metropolitan area of San José.
Not to mention an energy development program, in which hydraulics is the lion’s share. About a hundred kilometers east of the capital, the largest shipyard in Central America, after those of the Panama and Nicaragua canals, stands in the middle of the jungle. The future Reventazon hydropower plant in the province of Limon mobilized 4,000 workers in a sweltering heat to build a dam 130 meters high and a reservoir of 118 million m3 of water. The first of its four turbines should be launched in March 2016.
“International investors, including the World Bank, have put $ 1.4 billion on the table to build the 306 MW plant that will power 525,000 homes, ” said Luis Allan Retana. Responsible for the environmental management of the site, he holds a strategic position within the ICE. “We have moved 10,000 plants and 174,000 animals into the reservoir area to minimize the environmental impact of the work on flora and fauna,” says Allan Retana. A jaguar protection perimeter has been defined in particular to preserve the migratory corridor of this cat crossing the two mountain ranges surrounding the dam.
The stakes are high in one country, where protected natural areas cover 25% of the territory. The difficult balance between green electricity and respect for the environment is threatening another even bigger water project. “Evaluated at two billion dollars, the future power station of El Diquis, in the south of the country, will have a power of 650 MW in 2025, double the factory of Reventazon, explains Mr. de la Cruz. But the site provokes the opposition of the Indian populations of the region, who will have to be consulted before launching the first bulldozers. In case of refusal, the country will probably have to import liquid natural gas to meet its growing needs. “A decision that could call into question the promise of carbon neutrality that the country intends to promote at the World Climate Conference (COP21) to be held in Paris in December.
Forests for green energy
“The woods protect our energy mix,” says Felipe Carazo, director of Fundecor. Created in 1989, this NGO fights against deforestation in northeastern Costa Rica. An action supported by the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE), anxious to limit the droughts that affect its production of hydropower, the country’s leading source of electricity. “In addition to the benefits on the climate, the trees ensure a better capture of the rains in the ground”, justifies Mr. Carazo.
Thus, about fifteen forest engineers support 500 landowners in the conservation of their forests with the financial support of the State. Passed in 1996, a forest law introduced an Environmental Services Allowance (PSA) of $ 64 per year per hectare of preserved wood. “The idea is to dissuade homeowners from cutting their trees by making forest management profitable,” says Carazo. Assessment: 40,000 hectares of forest saved by Fundecor in a country, where deforestation has increased from 6% to 2% in twenty years.