Some two weeks back, Costa Rica created a flutter in environmental and energy circles. The country was reported to have been running completely on renewable energy for 75 days, and had created some sort of a record. Relying mainly on hydropower, Costa Rica was said to have not used fossil fuels to generate electricity since the beginning of 2015. The credit for this went to hydropower (with roughly 70 per cent of the power generated) and, thankfully, a season of heavy rains. The nation of barely five million people, incidentally, also produces renewable energy from a mix of solar, geothermal and wind power.
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The fantastic revelation came from state-owned power supplier Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which said the country’s zero-emission milestone was enabled thanks to heavy rainfall at four hydroelectric power facilities in the first quarter of 2015. The downpour meant that, for the months of January, February and mid-March, there had been no need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. The people benefited, otherwise, too – power tariff was to be cut by 12 per cent in April.
Powered primarily by hydro power – both pumped storage and run-of-the-river plants, the tiny nation seemed to have shown the way to its bigger cousins. Yes, it is a tiny country at 51,100 sq km: marginally bigger than Punjab and slightly smaller than Uttarakhand. With only 0.1 per cent of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica contains 5 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. At 25 per cent of the national territory, the Latin American nation has a larger percentage of its total area set aside in national parks and wildlife/biodiversity preserves than any other country on earth. It’s a country that believes in the planet. And peace too: it does not have a standing Army (yes, you read that right).
Yet, the Costa Rica example cannot be replicated in most parts of the world. Its tropical climate gives it high rainfall, it has a mountainous and volcanic interior, and population is extremely low. It has hardly any industry worth the name – the economy is driven by tourism and agriculture – especially bananas and coffee. It is not the Costa Rica model that is worth emulating, but their political will. What Costa Rica did, was to show the world that where there is a will, there is a way. Its shift towards renewable energy had been driven more by exigency, than fashion. With Venezuela, which had been selling oil to the small countries in the region at heavily subsidised rates, going virtually bankrupt, Costa Rica was left with little choice. Not that this decision was not in sync with its world vision: way back in 2009, Costa Rica had announced the goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2021.Green electricity was the best way forward.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with all this. First, hydro-electric projects can have devastating effects on ecosystems, including riparian pathways. Moreover, the country’s reliance on hydroelectricity also makes it vulnerable to climate change. Any change to rainfall patterns can disrupt its power supply. The country can ill-afford to forget that only six months back, it was reeling under one of the worst droughts in its history. That’s one reason why the Costa Rican government approved a $958 million geothermal project last year. That’s a big investment, being done by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and the European Investment Bank, but Costa Rica which is volcano-rich can afford it. After all, it does not need to waste money on unnecessary defence expenses.
But Costa Rica is not the leader of the pack – it is a tiny island off the coast of Venezuela: Bonaire. When a fire destroyed their diesel power plant in 2004, the Caribbean islanders looked at alternative power sources that would be cheaper, and more reliable. With an area of 294 sq km and population of 17,000, the Dutch island is not noticeable on a map. Before the fire, diesel had to be shipped in from other countries, resulting in high power rates and erratic supply. Power was dirty, it was expensive. After the disaster, the government and locals began working together to create a plan that would enable Bonaire generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources.
Today, its 12 wind turbines meet the electricity demand – that of its citizens and the 70,000 tourists who visit it annually. The island is now planning to use algae resources, grown in the large salt flats on the island, to create biofuel, which can then be used in existing generators. Bonaire will then operate a 100 per cent renewable electricity system—with 40–45 per cent from wind and 55-60 per cent from biodiesel.
The Costa Rica and Bonaire success stories need to be lauded not because their exact strategies can be simulated elsewhere in toto, but because they show that ideas can yield the best results when you try to find out solutions within the means that you have. Their ideas were not driven be megalomania, they didn’t destroy their natural resources to achieve the needful. That’s what sustainability is all about.
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