How Clean is Costa Rica?

Angel Rubio
November 30, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: The Pirris Hydroeletric Dam In Costa Rica. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Spending a record 271 days without burning a single ounce of fossil fuels to meet its electricity demands, Costa Rica has cemented its status as being on the forefront of using renewables. [1] Located at the bottom of Central America, the country is blessed by having a vast amount of natural resources that it can exploit to meet its energy needs. Additionally, it is has been able to make such records because it is a country with a small population of 5 million inhabitants. Furthermore, the country does not have any true energy-intensive industry, as its largest industries are currently touring and fruit exports. [2]

However, its vast amount of renewable energy may be causing more harm than good. While many technologies may appear to be clean, they may have drastic effects on the people, and end up releasing greenhouse gasses. As the country continues to develop, it will start to consume more energy. In order to keep such a good energy paradise, Costa Rica should change its renewables output and invest in low greenhouse gas emitting projects.


Costa Rica, a country filled with rivers, has been heavily investing in hydropower, such as the facility pictured in Fig. 1, with hopes that it will be able to provide its people with electricity. In 2016, Costa Rica finished installing the Bijagua hydropower station located in the city of Upala in the Alajuela province. At the time, the hydropower station helped Costa Rica reach a total installed hydropower capacity of 2.12 GW, composing around 75% of the country's total electricity production. [3] Costa Rica is fortunate that it can enjoy such an extended period of high hydropower generation due to the extensive rainfall. [3]

However just how green is this energy? Planned to be the largest hydroelectric station in Central America with a production of 630 megawatts, the El Diquis Hydroelectric project has been subject to a lot of conflicts in its construction. With the planned capacity of generating electricity for over a million persons, the station will be able to provide power for 20% of Costa Rica's population. However, construction of the dam has been halted as of 2011, as the indigenous people claim that the station would destroy over 200 of their sacred sites. [4] Also, the project will end up flooding about 1700 acres of their protected land, which will force approximately 40 families of the nearby Teribe tribe elsewhere. [4] Using the United Nations Declaration of the Right of Indigenous People, the tribe has so far been able to block the construction of the dam. Former Costa Rican Vice President Piva claims that the project must move forward as it will bring great benefits to the zone. [4] Recently, in January 2017, the Constitutional Chamber of the Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled the ICE, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, cannot go forward with the El Diquis project as it failed to consult indigenous people on the repercussions of the project. [5]

In the 1980s Brazil decided to flood about 2,500 square kilometers of the Amazon rainforest to create the Balbina dam. It is during this time period that Philip Fearnside, a biologist at the National Institue for Research in the Amazon studying the aforementioned damn, noticed that this dam, like many dams around the world, releases water from meters below the surface causing a pressure change within the soil that releases significant amounts of methane to be released. [6] What is happening, is that as the water is released, the hydrostatics pressure drops which causes the solubility of methane to decrease, causing it to be discharged into the atmosphere quickly. [7] Thought to be carbon neutral sources of energy, there is currently a debate as to whether or not dams built for hydropower are in fact green or can be considered carbon neutral. According to Philip Feanside, a research professor at Department of Environmental Dynamics at the National Institute for Research in Amazonia, Brazils Tecurui Dam, also located in the Amazon, had a greenhouse gas emission that was substantially greater than the emission of Sao Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil. [6] Using calculations from seven years after the dam was built and mixing the data with data from a nearby dam in French Guyana, Feansides estimate has been subject to criticism. However, Danny Cullenward, an energy economics and environmental law lecturer at Stanford University, Fearnsides methods merit confidence due to further studies that showed that gas concentration appeared to be constant. Cullenwards calculations also show that dams in the world release between 95 million and 122 million tons of methane gas per year. Lastly, the flooding of large areas that contain organic matter leads to large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide being released as the organic matter decomposes. [8]

Geothermal Energy

Using steam that originates from volcanoes and steam that is located underneath the country, Costa Rica has a large geothermal potential. The country has an estimated potential that is around 875 MW, but its current capacity is only 195 MW. [9] If fully developed, the country can multiply its geothermal sourced output by roughly a factor of four. Moving away from hydropower, Costa Rica should focus a vast majority of its efforts on developing its geothermal station arsenal. Unlike hydro, geothermal power does not have a significant dependence on weather conditions. Containing six active volcanos and numerous inactive volcanoes, Costa Rica is in the perfect location to reap the energy that lies underneath. Looking at the IDB energy matrix for 2013, Geothermal accounted for 55% of the electricity production. In the past year, this number has decreased as more hydro powered station came online. But Costa Rica has numerous areas where the geothermal station could be placed. Currently, the North Volcanic Mountain Ridge located in the Guanacaste providence has the largest geothermal potential. [10] Containing the Rincon de La Vieja National Park, there have been conflicts undermining the development of geothermal in this region. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a large container of biological diversity, environmentalists, advocate that building a geothermal site near or on the park will have disastrous effects on land would end up being taken over. [5] However, ICE, states that the approximately 3,000 acres of the national park will be replaced with land at other sites. [5] It is due to this, then Costa Rica must do what is best for the country by only developing outside of the land but if it is absolutely needed, the affected land must be replaced and conserved else ware. When compared to hydropower, the amount of land that needs to be altered is much less, and thus the effects that plants have on the parks is much less than hydro. Geothermal also has the advantage that it can produce power all the time, and is not depended on climate conditions or time conditions such as hydro or solar.


Looking at Costa Rica's energy sector, it is vastly dominated by hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric has the problem that displaces a lot of people, floods lands, and released large amounts of greenhouses gasses in the long run. In the future, Costa Rica should focus its resources into developing its geothermal arsenal since it is more environmetally friendly and cleaner.

© Angel Rubio. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] L. Alvarado, "Costa Rica Could Reach 300 Days Running on Clean Energy," Costa Rica Star, 18 Jun 17.

[2] M. H. Biesanz, R. Biesanz, and K. Z. Biesanz, "The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), P. 53.

[3] L. Wade, "Water, Fire, And Costa Rica's Carbon-Zero Year So Far," Wired Magazine, 27 Mar 15.

[4] M. McDonald, "Vice President Piva to Oversee Controversial Hydroelectric Project," Tico Times, 12 Jan 11.

[5] J. McPhaul, "Guanacaste Conservation Area Favors Environmentally Sensitive Geothermal Project," Tico Times, 12 Apr 13.

[6] P. M. Fearnside, "Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Hydroelectric Reservoir (Brazil's Tucuruí Dam) and the Energy Policy Implications," Water Air Soil Pollut. 133, 69 (2002).

[7] D. Cullenward and D. G. Victor, "The Dam Debate and Its Discontents," Climate Change 81, 81 (2006).

[8] R. Mendona et al., "Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Hydroelectric Reservoirs: What Knowledge Do We Have and What is Lacking?" in Greenhouse Gases - Emission, Measurement and Management, ed. by G. Liu (InTech, 2012), p. 55.

[9] W. Anders, "Geothermal Exploration in Costa Rica's National Parks Under Consideration," Costa Rica Star, 5 Jun 17.

[10] S. Farley, "Geothermal Power: Costa Rica's Next Clean Energy Solution? Costa Rica Star, 6 Sep 13.