Courtesy of The Free Thought Project, with over 4,000 likes and 3,200 shares. This meme claims that Costa Rica has “ditched fossil fuels” and used renewable energy for over 100 days. While not clearly worded, it implies that they received all of their energy from renewable sources during this period, a popular claim based on a recent report out of Costa Rica. However, when more context is given to this claim, it’s clear Costa Rica is certainly not an example of “ditching fossil fuels”, nor is it a country the rest of the world could emulate.
Costa Rica, The Global Leader In Renewable Energy?
The official report this meme is based on documents that Costa Rica has reached 150 days of 100% renewable electricity (not energy) so far in 2016, including 76 continuous days since June 17. This is a remarkable achievement, considering Germany only produces about 30% of their electricity through renewable sources, despite their ambitious Energiewende program which could cost over $1 trillion. So how do they achieve this?
Costa Rica’s Electricity Breakdown
This graphic shows the percentage of electricity produced by different sources during August 2016, the period the meme references. An astounding 80% of electricity came from hydroelectric and 13% from geothermal, while trivial amounts came from wind, solar and other sources. This is quite unusual compared to other countries. The United States, for example, receives just 2.4% from hydro, and .4% from geothermal. Clearly, something is different about Costa Rica that’s worth examining.
Costa Rica is a small, rugged, rainforested country with a population of under 5 million. Its geography of steep hills and valleys funnels its often abundant rainfall into powerful rivers, perfect for utilizing hydroelectric power inexpensively. Costa Rica’s many volcanoes also allow it to harness geothermal energy. However, even these great natural benefits wouldn’t normally be enough to power most countries.
Costa Rica also has a phenomenally ideal climate. Throughout the entire year, the average high varies from 26-28°C (79-81°F), while the lows average between 17-18°C (63-64°F). This remarkably stable temperature means that neither heat nor air conditioning is required, so it saves much energy use. In contrast, the average high in St. Paul, Minnesota reaches 29°C in July, while the average low dips to -14°C in January. Most other climates require much more energy use to live comfortably.
Costa Rica’s economy, while stable, has no major industry. Its economy is predominately based on tourism, with the service sector contributing over 72% of economic activity. Much of this is “ecotourism” which is much less energy intensive than, say, Disney World. This means far less energy is being used compared to other countries, as there is far less production in manufacturing plants, mining and even agriculture. However, it should be noted they still take advantage of these products, even if they don’t produce them. They still drive the cars, use the cell phones and construct their buildings with products manufactured in countries with higher energy use.
Costa Rica’s annual GDP is $71 billion. This is only about one fifth of Minnesota, which has a similar population, and a GDP of $333 billion.
These factors contributed to Costa Rica producing just 10,713 gigawatt hours of electricity in 2015. The US, comparatively, produced 4.08 million gigawatt hours, over 380 times as much. Adjusted per capita, the US produces almost 6 times as much electricity as Costa Rica.
Fossil Fuel Use
Far from “ditching fossil fuels”, Costa Rica is still heavily reliant upon them for their energy needs. Electricity is just a fraction of total energy use, as transportation, agriculture, mining and manufacturing are often powered by fossil fuels. According to Dr. Monica Araya, almost 70% of Costa Rica’s energy consumption is oil. This means Costa Rica is actually more reliant on fossil fuels than renewable energy.
Even if they managed to convert all vehicles to electric someday, this would dramatically increase their electricity demand, which would mean their hydro and geothermal sources would not be adequate. Then, they would run into the problem Germany has with their attempts at renewable energy, except they won’t have the wealthy, industrial economy to fund those projects.
Hydroelectric Power and Opposition From Environmentalists
The reason Costa Rica can rely on renewable sources is because hydro can supply over 80% of their needs. Among renewable sources, hydroelectric is one of the best. Powering a modern society requires energy that is reliable on-demand. Wind and solar are examples of unreliable sources, as they vary substantially based on the weather. On a calm night, we still need electricity, so they can’t be relied on without backups, which are generally reliable sources like fossil fuels or nuclear. Hydro can deliver a constant supply of electricity, which means it largely can be relied upon, although events like droughts may require adjustments. The main problem with hydro power is that it isn’t scalable. Most countries simply don’t have the right water resources to get enough electricity from hydroelectric power. Even Costa Rica is close to reaching a virtual limit, as their electricity production is often limited by rainfall and reservoir volume.
Compounding this problem is that environmental groups who generally support renewables, are opposed to hydro power. Popular groups like The Sierra Club and Greepeace both oppose large-scale hydroelectric power, particularly any new development, as they fear damage to the environment. Alternet claims that hydro “doesn’t count as clean energy”. Almost every new plan for hydro power receives opposition from environmental groups, like this recent one in Vermont. In Montana, environmental groups even protested a bill that counted hydroelectric power as renewable. Ironically, many of the same people who are cheering Costa Rica’s success oppose the very reason for that success!
While it’s true Costa Rica often produces 100% of their electricity from renewable sources, this comes with many caveats. They have a unique geography and climate, have no major industries, and consume far less electricity than other modern countries. Even still, oil accounts for 70% of their energy use, meaning they have not “ditched fossil fuels”. Using Costa Rica as a model to emulate would not translate well to most other nations, as they are heavily reliant on hydroelectric power. Not only is this type of power not scalable for most countries, it would be blocked by the same environmental groups cheering this meme if it were pursued.