Costa Rica is pulling off a feat most
This isn’t a blip, either. For 300 total days last year and 150 days so far this year, Costa Rica’s electricity has come entirely from renewable sources, mostly hydropower and geothermal. Heavy rains have helped four big hydroelectric dams run above their usual capacity, letting the country turn off its diesel generators.
Now, there’s a huge, huge caveat here: Costa Rica hasn’t eschewed all fossil fuels entirely. The country still has more than 1 million cars running on old-fashioned gasoline, which is why imported oil still supplies over half its total energy needs. The country also has cement plants that burn coal.
What Costa Rica’s doing is nevertheless impressive — and a reflection of how serious the tiny Central American country is about going green. At the same time, a closer look at the story shows just how difficult it would be for other countries to pull off something similar.
Most of Costa Rica’s electricity is from hydro and geothermal
When many people think of “renewables,” they tend to think of giant wind turbines or gleaming solar panels. But that’s not what Costa Rica is relying on. For years, roughly 80 percent of the nation’s electricity has come from a technology that’s more than a century old — hydroelectric dams:
This makes a difference. Unlike wind or solar, hydropower can run at all hours, making it quite reliable. Though they do have a catch: The output of these dams can fluctuate with the weather, since you need enough water in the reservoir to keep the turbines spinning.
Back in 2014, Costa Rica suffered a brutal drought, and the dams produced less power, forcing grid operators to rely more heavily on diesel generators. In 2015 and 2016, by contrast, the country experienced above-average rainfall at its four biggest reservoirs, allowing those hydroelectric dams to meet virtually all of the country’s electricity needs.
Another 12 percent or so of Costa Rica’s electricity comes from geothermal plants, which tap heat deep in the Earth’s crust and can also run around the clock. In 2014, after that aforementioned drought, the nation’s legislature approved a $958 million geothermal plant, backed by loans from Europe and Japan, that’s now up and running.
The remainder of Costa Rica’s electricity needs were supplied by wind — which is currently supplying 7 percent of electricity — a smaller amount of biomass, and a very minuscule bit of solar.
But there’s more to energy than just electricity — and Costa Rica still uses oil for cars
When people talk about decarbonization, they often focus solely on electricity — the stuff that keeps our lights on and powers our homes and businesses. In part that’s because there’s a lot of excitement around using renewables to generate power.
But electricity is only a small part of the total energy picture. And a look at Costa Rica nicely illustrates why.
The country of 4.9 million people also has plenty of cars and buses, which still run on gasoline and diesel. This accounts for about half of Costa Rica’s total energy use. The nation also has two large cement plants that burn coal and petroleum coke in their kilns, producing carbon dioxide emissions. Many homes also still burn wood for heating, which can often have harmful health impacts (although Costa Rica has been trying to substitute cleaner-burning natural gas).
You can see a breakdown of Costa Rica’s overall energy use here. It’s in Spanish, but you can see that imported oil (in red) accounts for over half of total energy needs:
Also note that Costa Rica is still a relatively poor country (its GDP per capita is about $11,000) and its per capita electricity consumption is about one-quarter of, say, France or Belgium. If Costa Rica was richer and used more electricity, then its current hydropower and geothermal plants wouldn’t be enough to supply all of its needs.
That’s not to knock Costa Rica! Ever since emerging from military dictatorship in 1949, the country has taken environmentalism very seriously, in part to nurture its thriving ecotourism industry. The state-run utility is currently building dozens of wind farms and small dams around the country, with the aim of zeroing out the use of all fossil fuels for electricity — forever. Costa Rica is also planning to balance out other emissions with a program to protect its rainforests and plant more trees. The aim, eventually, is carbon neutrality.
Cleaning up the transportation sector will be the toughest lift here, particularly since electric cars are still expensive and not widely available. In a recent TedSummit talk, Costa Rican climate advocate Monica Araya discussed some of the steps underway. Among other things, she notes, it may take redesigning cities around walking, cycling, and electrified public transportation rather than cars.
Why it’s harder for other countries to do what Costa Rica did
So if Costa Rica can get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, why couldn’t other countries do the same? Why can’t the United States, which is far richer?
One obstacle here is that hydropower and geothermal are very location-specific — and only a few countries are lucky enough to have such rich resources. Iceland gets nearly 100 percent of its electricity from these two sources. Paraguay gets almost all of its electricity from the massive Itaipú Dam. Brazil gets more than 75 percent of its power from hydropower. But those are exceptions. For most countries, hydropower can only satisfy a portion of their power needs.
The United States, for example, has already dammed up most of its suitable large rivers and still only gets 7 percent of its electricity from hydro. We could maybe eke outanother 1 percent by retrofitting smaller dams that don’t have power plants, but there’s an upper limit here:
As for geothermal, the United States could arguably do more to harvest heat deep beneath the ground — we currently only get about 0.41 percent of our electricity from this. But that’s also limited by location. It could be a boon for states like California, less so for Wisconsin:
Most other countries find themselves in similar situations. Hydropower already provides 16 percent of the world’s electricity. In theory, we could try to double this by damming up every last big river on Earth, but that could end up displacing millions of people, destroying habitats, and, in some cases, exacerbating climate change (decaying vegetation in poorly built dams can lead to extra methane emissions). Not so easy to do.
Which means that for most countries, moving to 100 percent renewable power would largely entail building a lot more wind and solar. The good news is that the price of both has been tumbling. The not-so-good news is that these sources are still intermittent, and not quite as simple to scale up (although a lot of people are working on figuring this out, and of course there’s a lot of hope that energy storage could help). Some analysts think these sources could hit a ceiling long before 100 percent.
In that case, countries worried about greenhouse-gas emissions may have to turn to nuclear power (reliable but expensive and dogged by concerns about waste). Or coal or gas plants that could capture their carbon-dioxide output and bury it underground (expensive and not yet commercialized).
And, of course, that’s just electricity. To really tackle global warming, you’d also have toreduce emissions from the transportation sector (where cleaner electric cars are still a tiny fraction of the fleet) as well as industries like steel, iron, cement, and so on (where there’s been surprisingly little work on decarbonization, even though this is about 20 percent of the world’s emissions). There’s a good reason why fossil fuels still provideabout 86 percent of the world’s energy, a fraction that hasn’t budged for over a decade. Coal, oil, and gas are environmentally destructive, yes, but also remarkably convenient.
So most countries won’t be able to follow the exact same path Costa Rica did. They’ll have to find their own ways to clean up.
How do we build a society without fossil fuels?
0:17This is a very complex challenge, and I believe developing countries could take the lead in this transition.And I’m aware that this is a contentious statement, but the reality is that so much is at stake in our countries if we let fossil fuels stay at the center of our development. We can do it differently. And it’s time, it really is time, to debunk the myth that a country has to choose between development on the one hand and environmental protection, renewables, quality of life, on the other.
1:00I come from Costa Rica, a developing country. We are nearly five million people, and we live right in the middle of the Americas, so it’s very easy to remember where we live. Nearly 100 percent of our electricitycomes from renewable sources, five of them.
1:29Hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar, biomass.
1:38Did you know that last year, for 299 days, we did not use any fossil fuels in order to generate all our electricity? It’s a fantastic achievement, and yet, it hides a paradox, which is that nearly 70 percent of all our energy consumption is oil.
2:10Why? Because of our transportation system, which is totally dependent on fossil fuels, like it is in most countries. So if we think of the energy transition as a marathon, the question is, how do we get to the finish line, how do we decarbonize the rest of the economy? And it’s fair to say that if we don’t succeed,it’s difficult to see who will. So that is why I want to talk to you about Costa Rica, because I believe we are a great candidate in pioneering a vision for development without fossil fuels.
2:50If you know one thing about our country, it’s that we don’t have an army. So I’m going to take you back to 1948. That year, the country was coming out of civil war. Thousands of Costa Ricans had died, and families were bitterly split. And yet, a surprising idea won the hearts and minds: we would reboot the country, and that Second Republic would have no army. So we abolished it. And the president at the time, José Figueres, found a powerful way by smashing the walls of an army base. The following year, 1949, we made that decision permanent in the new constitution, and that is why I can tell you that story nearly 70 years later. And I’m grateful. I’m grateful they made that decision before I was born, because it allowed me and millions of others to live in a very stable country.
4:00And you might be thinking that it was good luck, but it wasn’t. There was a pattern of deliberate choices.In the ’40s, Costa Ricans were given free education and free health care. We called that social guarantees. By abolishing the army, we were able to turn military spending into social spending, and that was a driver of stability. In the ’50s —
4:33In the ’50s, we started investing in hydropower, and that kept us away from the trap of using fossil fuels for electricity generation, which is what the world is struggling with today. In the ’70s we invested in national parks, and that kept us away from the deeply flawed logic of growth, growth, growth at any costthat you see others embracing, especially in the developing world. In the ’90s, we pioneered payments for ecosystem services, and that helped us reverse deforestation and boosted ecotourism, which today is a key engine of growth. So investing in environmental protection did not hurt our economy. Quite the opposite.
5:18And it doesn’t mean we are perfect, and it doesn’t mean we don’t have contradictions. That’s not the point. The point is that, by making our own choices, we were able to develop resilience in dealing with development problems.
5:35Also, if you take a country like ours, the GDP per capita is around 11,000 dollars, depending on how you measure it. But according to the Social Progress Index, we are an absolute outlier when it comes to turning GDP into social progress. Abolishing the army, investing in nature and people, did something very powerful, too. It shaped the narrative, the narrative of a small country with big ideas, and it was very empowering to grow up with that narrative.
6:10So the question is, what is the next big idea for this generation? And I believe what comes next is for this generation to let go of fossil fuels for good, just as we did with the army.
6:29Fossil fuels create climate change. We know that, and we know how vulnerable we are to the impacts of climate change. So as a developing country, it is in our best interest to build development without fossil fuels that harm people in the first place. Because why would we continue importing oil for transportationif we can use electricity instead?
6:59Remember, this is the country where electricity comes from water in our rivers, heat from volcanoes,wind turbines, solar panels, biowaste. Abolishing fossil fuels means disrupting our transportation systemso that we can power our cars, buses and trains with electricity instead of dirty energy.
7:31And transportation, let me tell you, has become an existential issue for us Costa Ricans, because the model we have is not working for us. It’s hurting people, it’s hurting companies, and it’s hurting our health.
7:46Because when policies and infrastructure fail, this is what happens on a daily basis. Two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening. I don’t understand why we have to accept this as normal. It’s offensive to have to waste our time like this every single day. And this highway is actually quite goodcompared to what you see in other countries where traffic is exploding. You know, Costa Ricans call this “presa.” Presa means “imprisoned.” And people are turning violent in a country that is otherwise happy in pura vida. It’s happening. So a lot is at stake.
8:35The good news is that when we talk about clean transportation and different mobility, we’re not talking about some distant utopia out there. We’re talking about electric mobility that is happening today. By 2022, electric cars and conventional cars are expected to cost the same, and cities are already trying electric buses. And these really cool creatures are saving money, and they reduce pollution. So if we want to get rid of oil-based transportation, we can, because we have options now that we didn’t have before. It’s really exciting.
9:21But of course, some get very uncomfortable with this idea, and they will come and they will tell you that the world is stuck with oil, and so is Costa Rica, so get real. That’s what they tell you. And you know what the answer to that argument is? That in 1948, we didn’t say the world is stuck with armies, so let’s keep our army, too. No, we made a very brave choice, and that choice made the whole difference.
9:52So it’s time for this generation to be brave again and abolish fossil fuels for good. And I’ll give you three reasons why we have to do this.
10:02First, our model of transportation and urbanization is broken, so this is the best moment to redefine our urban and mobility future. We don’t want cities that are built for cars. We want cities for people where we can walk and we can use bikes. And we want public transportation, lots of it, public transportation that is clean and dignifying. Because if we continue adding fleets of conventional cars, our cities will become unbearable.
10:39Second, we have to change, but incremental change is not going to be sufficient. We need transformational change. And there are some incremental projects in my country, and I am the first one to celebrate them. But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re not talking about ending up with really beautiful electric cars here and a few electric buses there while we keep investing in the same kind of infrastructure, more cars, more roads, more oil. We’re talking about breaking free from oil, and you cannot get there through incrementalism.
11:19Third, and you know this one, the world is hungry for inspiration. It craves stories of success in dealing with complex issues, especially in developing countries. So I believe Costa Rica can be an inspiration to others, as we did last year when we disclosed that for so many days we were not using any fossil fuels in order to generate all our electricity. The news went viral around the world. Also, and this makes me extremely proud, a Costa Rican woman, Christiana Figueres, played a decisive role in the negotiations of the Paris climate agreement. So we have to protect that legacy and be an example.
12:18So what comes next? The people. How do we get people to own this? How do we get people to believe that it’s possible to build a society without fossil fuels? A lot of work from the ground up is needed.
12:40That is why, in 2014, we created Costa Rica Limpia. “Limpia” means “clean,” because we want to empower and we want to inspire citizens. If citizens don’t get engaged, clean transportation decisions will be bogged down by endless, and I mean endless, technical discussions, and by avalanches of lobbying by various established interests. Wanting to be a green country powered by renewables is already part of our story. We should not let anybody take that away from us.
13:23Last year, we brought people from our seven provinces to talk about climate change in terms that matter to them, and we also brought this year another group of Costa Ricans to talk about renewable energy.And you know what? These people disagree on almost everything except on renewable energy and clean transportation and clean air. It brings people together.
13:49And the key to real participation is to help people not to feel small. People feel powerless, and they are tired of not being heard. So what we do is concrete things, and we translate technical issues into citizen language to show that citizens have a role to play and can play it together. For the first time, we’re tracking the promises that were made on clean transportation, and politicos know that they have to deliver it, but the tipping point will come when we form coalitions — citizens, companies, champions of public transportation — that will make electric mobility the new normal, especially in a developing country.
14:33By the time the next election comes, I believe every candidate will have to disclose where they stand on the abolition of fossil fuels. Because this question has to enter our mainstream politics. And I’m telling you, this is not a question of climate policy or environmental agenda. It’s about the country that we wantand the cities that we have and the cities that we want and who makes that choice. Because at the end of the day, what we have to show is that development with renewable energy is good for the people, for Costa Ricans that are alive today and especially for those who haven’t been born.
15:20This is our National Museum today. It’s bright and peaceful, and when you stand up in front of it, it’s really hard to believe these were military barracks at the end of the ’40s. We started a new life without an army in this place, and here is where our abolition of fossil fuels will be announced one day. And we will make history again.