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Costa Rica, Sustainable Energy Model for the World


Background and History

Costa Rica (CR) is populated with a little over five million people and over the past five years, provided 100 % of its citizens1 with almost 100% renewable electricity. This makes CR the cleanest and sustainable electrical energy generation system in the world.

CR is a perfect example of:

  • How it is possible for a country to successfully use the resources offered by Earth
  • Provide its citizens with electricity using what they collect
  • And have more than half of their land protected from exploitation

What makes CR so unique is its dedication to both sustainable energy and protecting land and the indigenous life living on it. CR is one of the leading countries in renewable energy, investing billions in a sustainable future. They even coordinate with other countries so their citizens can further study the energy advances of those countries.

It is home to over 500,000 divergent species of animals, plants, fungi, protista and monera, amounting to at least 5% of the world’s biodiversity.2 For this reason, more than half of the country’s forest-land is protected. All countries should adapt these policies and this mentality to care about the environment because we all share the same home and should work to reduce or remove our footprint.

In 1821, Costa Rica gained independence from Spain, yet it remained undeveloped and poorest of the United Provinces of Central America.3 It was not considered a valuable country to the rest of the world until the late 1980s, when the possibility of a canal and the vast potential of agriculture was realized. The few Europeans who had come to Costa Rica by this time did, however, consider local farming methods inferior, and began to deforest more of the land. People mainly came to farm the land for banana or coffee plantations.

With a boom in economic development by 1980, almost a third of Costa Rica had been converted to pastureland. Leading to CR losing half of its forest cover between 1940 and 1987.4 This was faster than anywhere else in the western hemisphere, including the famous Amazon rainforests.5

Almost 240 million metric tons of carbon is stored in Costa Rica’s forests, an additional 35 million metric tons stored in 41.8 kilometers (km)2 of mangroves.6 Multiple studies indicate that coastal mangrove forests store more carbon than any other forest on Earth, making them crucial in the fight against climate change.

In the late 1980s these sites were approved for construction and extraction. When this study was carried out, there were no limitations or restrictions on the access to resource areas because the legal constitution of protected zones was still in an early stage. There were no legal barriers to exploration and future exploitation of geothermal energy in identified zones of high-temperature resources.7

The Miravalles field currently has five power plants with a total combined capacity of 163 Megawatts (MW).8 In 1994 the first unit was commissioned with the capacity of 55 MW.9 In the consecutive years, 95-97, two temporary 5 MW wellhead plants came on line as part of an agreement between ICE and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad de México (CFE),10 the electrical companies of Costa Rica and Mexico, respectively. The two temporary units were disassembled in 98 and 99 and returned to CFE.11 In 98 and 2000 CR installed a second 55 MW unit and a third 29 MW unit, respectively.12 In 2004, the fifth and final 19 MW unit was installed.13

The Las Pailas geothermal field started operation in 201114 and now has the capacity of 262 MW.15 This field is estimated to generate electricity for about 55,000 homes.16

It was not until the 1990s when CR began strides for the protection of their environment, with a Payments for Environmental Services (PES) program.17 The program helped end deforestation in CR by offering farmers direct payment to adopt techniques that do not negatively impact the environment.18

Leading Geologist: Dr. Alfredo Mainieri Protti

Since the 1970’s Dr. Mainieri Protti has been the leading Costa Rican geologist studying geothermal energy.19 Dr. Protti was born in 1934 in Puntarenas, Costa Rica and he died in 2013 in the capital of CR.20 He was known to advocate for the well-being of the communities his geothermal plants were in, ICE reports.21

The Miravalles geothermal field was later named after Dr. Protti in his honor.

Dr. Protti used a slogan that humans should “develop electrical projects in coexistence, recovery and preservation of the environment.” 22 We all need to adapt this mindset to treat our home better.

Why Costa Rica?

The oil crisis of 1973 caused prices to rise and initiated the search for other renewable energy sources.23 Costa Rica uses four renewable energy sources:

  • Solar and wind accounted for less than 5%
  • Hydro accounted for over 80%
  • Geothermal accounted for 15.4%24 of electric supply in 2004.3

Response to the oil crisis is what began the exploration for geothermal resources in 1979. An early estimate put the potential Geothermal Energy sources to contain a minimum of 865 MW.25 Recent calculations estimate CR to contain a potential of about 875 MW.26 Costa Ricans knew the geothermal potential in their country back in the 70’s but they still chose to protect the lands before further exploitation.

Late 20th century, CR forest landscape became protected, adding 31% forest cover. Between 2010 and 2014, CR invested millions in the program, benefiting thousands of landowners and protecting thousands of km2 of private land.

In 2015 and 2016, the country ran solely on renewable energy for a total of 229 days.27 Costa Rica is one of the first to turn pledges into solid policies and to frame the shift in terms of economic and social benefit.28

President Carlos Alvarado Quesada stated in a public gathering, “The decarbonization plan consists of maintaining an upward curve in terms of economic growth and at the same time generating a downward curve in the use of fossil fuels, in order to stop polluting. How are we going to achieve that? Through the electrification of transport, smart and resilient cities, sound waste management, sustainable agriculture and improved logistics. And about 50 years ago, the country began to push a series of innovative environmental policies because the paradigm of sustainable development is very much in the DNA of Costa Ricans.”29

Costa Rica has accomplished a tremendous achievement by reversing deforestation trends, reports still indicate that the nation’s biocapacity has persisted to decrease.30 The causes are unknown, but one sobering possible explanation is that the negative impacts of large-scale ecosystem change continue on for decades even after significant steps have been taken to slow and reverse such processes.31

Costa Ricans are driven to save their environment and encourage others to do so as well, even if the benefits come after our lifetimes. Costa Rica is also stepping up to take a key role in international climate talks, co-leading the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP25 in Santiago in December of this year. Although they may not have started as leaders, they still chose to make strides to become leaders of the environmental conversation.

Authorities say they plan to introduce fiscal reforms, including taxes on pollution, and build on the clean energy potential of the country in order to incentivize green growth and phase out fossil fuels.32


Hydro energy uses the flow from rivers and streams to turn a turbine to power a generator, releasing electricity. CR currently uses hydroelectric dams as their primary sustainable energy source.

The ample rainfall in Costa Rica provides the source for reliable hydro-electricity, but not enough to sustain the country in the dry season. For this reason, they turned to geothermal energy. CR lands the 12th spot in the world’s geothermal generation.33

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is used due to the multitude of volcanoes in Costa Rica. CR has nine active volcanoes. Geothermal energy is the process of harnessing the heat generated from the center of the earth and using it for energy in the form of heat or turning it into electricity. This energy is usually harnessed from steam or hot water that is emerging from underneath the earth’s surface.

There are two generic forms of geothermal energy. Ground source and deep well. Used extensively, ground source geothermal uses shallow wells and extracts heat from the upper part of the earth’s crust. The source of most of this heat is the sun’s radiation warming the earth, which in turn conducts and warms the upper portions of the crust.

Deep well geothermal uses the heat from magma, which has been heated primarily from the natural breakdown of atoms like uranium. We can access this heat by drilling deep into the earth through the crust or where magma reaches the surface, like in volcanos or fissures in the earth.

From 1979 to 1994 areas of CR were being drilled to test for the best locations for geothermal power plants. Fifty-three geothermal wells have been drilled to date; they include observation, production and injection wells, with depths ranging from 900 to 3,000 meters. Individual wells produce enough steam to generate an average of 7 MW; injection wells accept between 70 and 450 kg/s of residual (separated) geothermal fluids each.34

As of July 2019, geothermal energy has provided CR with 13.3% of total electricity supply.35 The investigation and exploitation of geothermal energy for the production of electricity is an activity that can coexist with the concept of protected zones because, in addition to the benefits mentioned, once the construction phase is complete there is ground remediation in the surrounding areas, as well as forest regrowth.36

The main obstacle Costa Rica faced and still faces is the location of these active volcanoes, they are in protected lands. Many protected areas have been created within the following seven categories: National Parks, Forest Reserves, Protected Zones, Biological Reserves, Natural Wildlife Refuges, Wetlands, National Monuments and Non-Governmental properties (NGOs).37 They make up 25% of national territory.38

As we’ve seen, Costa Rica protects much of its land and only permits exploration for energy and minerals in some protected areas. These protected areas create limitations to potential new sites. Of the nine potential volcanic sites, there are four locations that are ideal for geothermal energy extraction; two of which are installed: Las Pailas and Miravalles, and the other two are in the process of being approved to be installed: Borinquen and Poco Sol.


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